Olympic men’s volleyball: Italy ends U.S. hopes of repeating

August 8, 2012

Rich Lambourne moved so fast away from the court, he could’ve been mistaken for an Olympic race-walker rather than a volleyball player. Reid Priddy disappeared, too, eager to put as much distance between him and Wednesday’s disappointing elimination match as possible. And Donald Suxho, a towel draped over his head, locked his eyes on the ground as he made his way to the U.S. men’s volleyball team’s locker room.

For Lambourne, Priddy and Suxho — ages 37, 34 and 36 — the lopsided 3-0 loss to Italy in the Olympic quarterfinals was about more than going home with a lighter suitcase.

“A lot of guys, it was their last match they’ll probably play with the USA jersey on,” said outside hitter Matt Anderson, an Olympic rookie. “Right now, they’re heartbroken.”

The Americans’ hopes to repeat as Olympic champions were crushed in decisive fashion by Italy. Many of the same players who were there to win gold four years ago in Beijing, could do little to stop the bullying from the Italian team, which swept Wednesday's match, 28-26, 25-20, 25-20.

The U.S. entered the tournament ranked No. 5 in the world and cruised to a 4-1 record in group play. But the Italians were in the driver’s seat for most of the quarterfinal clash, executing well throughout the match and never giving up momentum earned in the emotional opening set.

“The way we’ve played all summer long, the way we played in the World League and the way we played in this tournament — to not have a chance to play for a medal is really disappointing for us,” U.S. Coach Alan Knipe said.

After cruising through group play, the United States’s bid to defend its Olympic crown essentially came down to a single set. Italy trailed by as many as four points early but clawed back. Ivan Zaytsev’s spike gave the Italians a 19-18 advantage.

The score remained close from there, though the U.S. team squandered three set points. Italy took advantage of its first set point, when the Americans allowed Dragan Travica’s serve to pass through, watching as it hit the back line, giving the Italians a hard-fought and emotionally draining 28-26 win.

“It was tough,” said middle blocker David Lee. “A lot of guys had their heads down. What can you do? You’ve got to forget that. It’s play by play. You have to have a short memory. I think some guys got down on themselves. That continued to carry through to the rest of the sets.”

The Americans built a slight lead early in the second set but could never grab ahold of the momentum. Passes were sloppy, the Italians serves were strong and the Americans had trouble blocking at the net.

“I tend to believe it’s probably more pressing than it is a lackluster effort or a letdown — so maybe trying too hard,” Knipe said. “You could almost see it in their eyes, you could hear it in the dialogue, how hard and how invested they are physically and emotionally in the match.”

With the win, Italy advances to the semifinals, where it will meet Brazil on Friday, and is trying for its first Olympic medal since taking silver at the Athens Games. The Italians have never won gold.

The Americans, meanwhile, will likely have some new faces when it tries again for gold four years down the road. Five of the 12 U.S. players on the court Wednesday were there when the Americans won it all at the 2008 Olympics. Seven players on this year’s team are aged 30 or older, and these Summer Games likely represented a last chance at Olympic glory.

“You got four more years to prepare for the next one,” said veteran Clayton Stanley, the Olympics MVP in 2008. “A lot of time. Hopefully people stick around, want to work on the things and improve.”

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