With a packed Pyramid, patriotic-colored cowbells clanging, and elite international athletes on the floor, there was something special about the volleyball action in Long Beach last night. It was, in other words, a bit more than a Long Beach State vs Pacific men’s volleyball match, or any other MPSF action, normally the best men’s volleyball action the venue plays host to. But with Olympic hopes on the mind of both teams competing in Friday’s NORCECA Olympic Qualifying semifinals, the USA and Cuba put on quite a show. After losing their first set of the tournament, the USA fought back with ferocity, and went on to win 21-25, 25-18, 25-17, 25-16.
The Americans are now just one win away from securing an Olympic berth.
“Every time we play them it’s a tough match,” said USA coach Alan Knipe. “It certainly was tonight. I have to give a lot of credit to our passers tonight, they got much better as the game went on.”
In the first set, the Americans’ aggressive brand of service got the better of them. After making very few mistakes in their matches (all sweep victories) on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, the USA made three errors in the first frame of Friday’s semifinal. Perhaps worse, they failed to capitalize on the Cubans’ mistakes, responding to their first two service errors with misses of their own.
The US never trailed by more than three, but couldn’t bring the score back to a tie after falling behind 13-10. They pulled within one at 20-19 after Cuba’s second service error, but the Americans gave the point right back on the next play by putting their serve into the net, too.
“I don’t know what happened in the first set,” said USA captain Clay Stanley. “I’m real proud of my team for coming out in the last three sets and focusing.”
In the second set, they got back on track with the block, putting up seven team blocks in a runaway victory. After the tight first set, they went up 10-5 on two consecutive blocks from Reid Priddy and Russ Holmes, and kept a five-point lead for the rest of the set. Matt Anderson’s serve was lethal, as he piled up four aces, and disrupted the Cuban attack with both his velocity and placement.
“We served a little better and caused more problems for Cuba,” said Knipe. “Once we got them into some trouble, we were able to get our block in place. Our guys were very disciplined, we didn’t do a lot different, just did it a little bit better.”
The story was the same in the third, where the American’s conditioning clearly began to play a part. Cuba made twice as many hitting and service errors in the third set as in the first, and weren’t using their front-line speed to nearly the same advantage. Anderson improved his offensive line to 14 kills on 20 swings, with no errors. By the fourth, it was obvious the USA had broken the Cubans’ spirit a bit, going up 17-8 with relative ease, and allowing Knipe to reach into his rotation a bit.
In fact, Holmes playing in the entire match, while normal starting middle Ryan Millar sat, was a big story of the day, as Holmes finished with four block assists. Anderson also finished with 17 kills on 24 swings, 4 aces, and a block. He’s a rare young player on a very experienced roster. “Matt’s still in the bottom half of where he could be as a player,” said Knipe. “He’s young, but he brings a lot of energy, and he’s a complete player. He has a very bright future.”
The Americans’ next match, obviously, is their biggest one yet—if they can down Canada on Saturday night, they’ll clinch that long-sought after Olympic berth. If not, it’s a long and winding road to London. Knipe and his team would prefer to take the direct flight. Come see what happens in the Pyramid, at 8pm Saturday—if you can’t make it, we’ll have all the coverage of the match.
“They’re a very similar team to us, they play a similar style,” said Knipe. “They played very well against Cuba and I expect them to play well against us, we have a lot of respect for them.”