There’s no doubt that Wednesday night’s match between the USA and Mexico National Men’s Volleyball teams was closer than the Americans’ first two contests, both of which lasted about as long as it takes to walk from the Long Beach State dorms to the Pyramid and back. But although the undefeated Mexicans were tougher competition, the result was the same for the USA and their trio of 49er players (as well as their head coach), all of whom once stayed in those campus dorms. After a tight first set, the Americans broke it open, winning 25-23, 25-19, 25-14 to advance to Friday night’s semifinals against the winner of Thursday’s quarterfinal.

“They put pressure on us early and often,” said head coach Alan Knipe. “We could be a lot cleaner than we were, there’s room for some improvement.”

The first set was worth the price of admission, with twelve ties in a frame that saw no team lead by more than three points. The Mexicans held the advantage for the first half of the set, leading by a point or two until the Americans went on a 3-0 run with captain Clay Stanley serving, which broke a 16-16 deadlock to give the USA the advantage.

But as safe as the Americans must have felt after taking a 22-18 lead on a Mexico service error, they wouldn’t be for long, as the ageless wonder, 37 year-old Gerardo Contreras had an ace and two kills as part of a 4-0 Mexico run to tie it at 22. The teams traded points, but the USA prevailed on a monster kill from Matt Anderson on the right side, and a block from Stanley and former 49er David Lee to end it.

The Americans’ service, as usual, put a lot of pressure on their opponent, and made it difficult for Mexico to establish their offensive sets. Anderson and Stanley were both locked in, as the team had eight aces and just two errors.

“We withstood their service pressure in the first set, but the truth is physically they are superior to us,” said Mexico coach Jorge Miguel-Azair, speaking through a translator.

In the second set, a dominant run of service from Anderson seemed to break the Mexicans’ spirit, as a 4-0 run with two aces put the USA up 12-9. Mexico hurt themselves with four service errors late in the set, countering nearly every positive burst they were able to put together. The Americans spread the ball well, as setter Donald Suxho (40 assists) distributed evenly between the middle, outside, opposite side, and even got five back-row kills from his teammates.

The third opened with the USA taking a 9-2 lead, only yielding two points on their own service errors, the lone blotches on an otherwise stellar night from the baseline. “That’s been consistent over these three matches,” said Knipe. “We’ve served well, and kept our errors down.”

The competition gets stiffer now, as the Americans are just two victories away from their goal of seizing that Olympic spot. “This was a good match, it was great that they put that pressure on us and made us fight to win,” said Stanley, contrasting Wednesday’s match with the easy sweeps of Monday and Tuesday. “It helps remind us of how tough are opponents are going to be.” If they can win two more matches in the Pyramid, that list of opponents will extend well into the Summer.

Sports Guy Mike Guardabascio has been writing professionally for a decade, with his work published in dozens of Southern California magazines and newspapers. He's won numerous awards and is the author of the historical book "Football in Long Beach."

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