There was something different about the USA men last weekend at the NORCECA Olympic qualifier. The team is largely made up of the same guys we’ve been seeing for the last three years, but sometime during the course of the week-long tournament, they turned a corner.
In the team’s 3-0 victory over Canada to earn an automatic berth to London, they displayed a laser-like focus that propelled them toward their goal. Now the team can finally breathe easier knowing that they have secured a ticket to the Games.
“It’s a sense of relief to be done with the qualification process,” said head coach Alan Knipe. “To be honest with you though I had a very confident, calm feeling about how we would perform based upon how we’ve been playing the last few weeks and the group that we have here at this tournament.”
That sense of calm extended to the players on the court as well. Throughout the tournament they played with poise, patience and confidence. Their first real test of the tournament came in the match against Cuba. The Cubans beat the Americans in last year’s NORCECA tournament and are currently one spot ahead of the U.S. in the world rankings. Cuba lost to a very surprising Canadian squad in pool play and were matched up with the Americans in the semifinal. They are a young, but incredibly athletic team that has proven to be a dangerous opponent.
“We know that their strength is the serve and they came out bombing,” said setter Donald Suxho. “But we knew they were not going to be able to keep it up all night long so we just had to stay patient and play our game.”
There was a point in the match when things just started to mesh for the American team. After losing the first set, the team steadied out and displayed the poise and experience one would expect from the defending Olympic gold medalists. Behind the pivotal play of two of the younger players - the blocking of Russell Holmes and the serving and attacking of Matt Anderson - their game took a giant leap forward.
Holmes, who started for Ryan Millar in both the semis and finals, had three stuff blocks for the match and sparked a streak of blocks in the second set that brought the momentum back to the USA’s side.
“He’s just so quick off the ground, he’s so quick laterally to get to the point of attack to block,” said Knipe of Holmes. “He’s very disciplined in our system, he’s got an incredibly high volleyball IQ, he understands our game plans. He played himself into a position where we had to have him on the floor. Too many good things were happening when he was out there.”
They even found the offensive rhythm that has been an issue for them over the past three years. After a long battle with Kevin Hansen and Brian Thornton, Suxho was chosen as the starting setter. He hardly left the floor for the entire tournament and was finally able to relax and settle into his role at the helm.
The men haven’t played together in competition since the World Cup back in November. They returned to the U.S. from their professional teams overseas just two weeks before the start of the tournament and they needed to pull together quickly. After two scrimmages with Argentina, they got a few more days in the gym before it was game time. Clay Stanley had even less time to train. Still recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery and some other nagging injuries, Stanley had about five days of practice time before the start of the event.
“The amount of time we’ve had to train together has been limited,” said middle blocker David Lee. “I think every day that we get into the gym, every match we play, I think the connection is getting stronger. So it is just going to take a matter of time until we’re on the same page.”
After that first set against Cuba, things started to flow. The Americans seemed to be communicating and working in a harmony we haven’t seen from them for quite some time.
On one particular transition play, Reid Priddy noticed that the Cuban defense was in disarray. As Suxho jumped to set the ball to one of his waiting attackers, Reid shouted “Donnie, GO!” Suxho, recognizing the urgency in Priddy’s voice, turned in the air and attacked the ball for an easy kill.
“I thought a lot of things started to click for us especially after the first set against Cuba,” said Knipe. “There was a lot of guidance from some real cagey veterans on and off the court. So I am really proud of that. I’m also proud of the fact that we were able to withstand the adversity when we faced it for the first time in this tournament.”
The win bolstered the team’s confidence level, as players started to sound more certain that ever that they can defend the gold in London. Even the younger players are starting to feel it. Matt Anderson, 25, who was named the tournament’s Best Spiker was asked how it felt to be one of the few rookies out on the floor.
“I don’t really consider myself a rookie anymore,” Anderson said. “I have been on the team for three and a half years now and a lot of these guys are some of my best friends so I don’t see it that way. But a lot of people think I’m a rookie. Let them think I’m a rookie. Let people come after me.”
The men’s team had only one day off before heading to Italy for the first leg of the World League tournament. This year’s World League will have a different format due to the Olympic year. After the first leg, the tournament will break for three weeks while the remaining unqualified teams play in a last chance tournament.
Thankfully, the Americans no longer have to worry about that and can use the time for a rare training block back in Anaheim. All told, they have only about 25 days of true training time remaining before the Olympics. After their performance in the qualifier, they know they are inching closer to being ready for London.
“Congrats to our team, we did it,” said Stanley. “We got our ticket to London. We really put it together this tournament. We had a great mindset and a great focus. We reached our goal. It was all around great volleyball and I am pretty stoked on it.”