The best that can be said for the U.S. men's volleyball team is that it went down with a struggle today. Displaying more courage than teamwork or talent, the United States was routed by Cuba, 15-8, 15-7, 15-13, in its first match at the Pan American games.
The Cubans and the packed house at Parque Miranda had to wait for the climactic point, however. Serving with a 14-8 lead, the Cubans needed 13 match points to end it.
"It's certainly better than being totally annihilated, but any time you come back like that you want to win," said Rich Duwelius, the U.S. floor leader and one of five national team members who are participating in the Pan Am games.
The rest of the best for the United States are playing in the prestigious Sapinne Cup in the Soviet Union. Until the team arrived here, it was assumed the best Cubans were in Moscow, too. Then they stepped onto the court.
"Cuba was supposed to send its best team to the Soviet Union and I know their coaches wanted to go there," said U.S. Coach Bill Neville. "Obviously, they were told to send their best here.
"It's real important for the Cubans to make a strong presence in the Pan American games and the obvious target is the U.S. Cuba plays with a mission and we've had a tremendous rivalry over the years."
For most of the afternoon, the Cubans displayed supreme confidence, and with good reason. Their double and triple blocks smothered the U.S. spikes and, except for some sloppy serving, they were in complete control.
"Cuba is a very emotional team," Neville said. "If things don't go right for them, they often start beating themselves. It's something we can take advantage of when we play them again. But there's no doubt we'll have to play our career game to win."
Although the five national team members have been teammates for several years, they had not been out as a unit until two days ago. They then began practice with the rest of the Pan Am team, which was drawn from the group that participated in the World University Games.
Cuba has won the last three Pan Am gold medals and must be considered the favorite this time, although Brazil has a strong team.
The six entries will play a round robin, and since the top four will qualify for the semifinals, the United States has a chance to regroup and win a medal.
The crowd obviously favored the Cubans and reacted with enthusiasm when their pregame spiking drill sent balls flying into the stands. Besides the standing-room-only crowd jammed inside, hundreds stood patiently outside, hoping some would leave and provide spaces.
Many fans sat in the arena with nothing to do for three hours following the U.S. women's morning rout of Venezuela (15-2, 15-1, 15-1), awaiting the start of this one.
The U.S. baseball team, already assured of a spot in the final round, raised its record to 4-0 with an 11-2 victory over Puerto Rico.
Dennis Milton of New York was guaranteed at least a bronze medal in the 156-pound class in boxing competition with a third-round knockout of Anthony Logan of Jamaica. Louis Howard of St. Louis advanced in the 147-pound class with a 5-0 decision over Segundo Quintero of Ecuador.