It has been a long two years for the United States women's volleyball team. When the 1984 Olympics ended, the Americans left Los Angeles with a silver medal, high hopes for the future and a symbol to rally around, the extraordinary Flo Hyman.

Since then, nothing has gone right for the U.S. women. Rebuilding was expected, but when Hyman died tragically last January of a heart attack, it almost seemed as if the light had gone out for the Americans. Hyman was not on the national team when she died, but as a symbol, she was something the team needed.

"When you have someone who is the very best in your sport around, everyone feeds off that leadership," Karolyn Kirby said tonight. "All of us looked up to Flo. We all miss her, regardless of whether she was playing or not."

Kirby now is captain of the U.S. team. Tonight, she and her teammates provided evidence that there still is hope for the team. The women lost their Goodwill Games semifinal match to the Soviet Union, 15-12, 11-15, 15-4, 15-11, but the match was competitive. Even when Paula Weishoff, the only remaining member of the 1984 team, went out in the second set with a sprained ankle, the team hung in.

"That was the key thing that I saw," said U.S. Coach Taras Liskevych. "When Paula got hurt, we could have just stopped. But we didn't. We won that game and we had a chance. We were able to play with this team. They're a very good team, but they are one I think we can compete with in the future."

The future was very much on the minds of the U.S. women. They came here five days ago wondering how good they were. An opening-day loss to North Korea put doubt in their minds. An understandable loss to Japan followed. But a victory over Czechoslovakia and tonight's performance -- they will play Japan Saturday for the bronze medal -- left them bubbling with hope.

"We all have these calendars we've been keeping since we got here," said Caren Kemner, now the team's best spiker. "We've been marking off each day since we got here, counting down. Monday North Korea , we didn't even mark that day off.

"But we've really come along just in the five days since then. The world better look out for us. We've made so much progress it's unbelievable. I mean when we get to the Olympics in two years, people better watch out for us."

Youthful enthusiasm is exactly what this team has. What it lacks is experience.

Tonight was a step toward alleviating that problem. The Soviets are the European champions. They are experienced and tough. Yet, the Americans never seemed intimidated. With the exception of the third set, they had a chance in every set. They even came back from 14-8 down in the fourth to trail, 14-11, before finally losing.

"There's definitely a mystique about the Russians," said Kirby. "Especially playing them here. But I thought we held our own. We just got a little bit tired toward the end and gave them some points we shouldn't have. That was the difference. Next time, I hope, it will be different."

Liskevych is building this team with an eye toward next year, when qualifying for the Olympics will take place. He believes that if the Americans qualify for Seoul, they will be in position to compete for a medal there. "I think by the end of 1987 this will be one of the top three teams in the world," he said.

There is no Flo Hyman on this team. There is no one 6 feet 5 who towers over the game and who lights up the court just by being there. But if this team can continue to develop and play the way it did tonight, there is certainly reason to believe that Kemner's "look out, world" declaration may not be mere fantasy.

If this team is to live up to such promises, Weishoff will have to play a key role. She is the veteran, the one with Olympic experience, the one who can be both a leader and a realist.

"This team is entirely different than the 1984 team," she said. "We're playing a completely different kind of game. People are being asked to play different roles.

"I think tonight showed all of us that we can play with anybody. We lost, 3-1, but sometimes the score lies. We were close. We were in there. We have to keep working. We're still building."

It is a difficult job. Olympic sports tend to go into hibernation for four years. Even if she had not been playing, Hyman would have been the focal point of the 1988 promotional campaign for volleyball. Now, she is gone and the loss hurts.

The pain of that loss never was more apparent than tonight when Weishoff tried to talk about her. Her eyes welled with tears as soon as the name was mentioned and her voice was soft and choked when she spoke.

"Anyone who played with her still feels the loss," she said. "Flo was just such a great person. It's still very hard to talk about her."

It is a painful past, one filled with glorious memories that leave an ache inside anyone who knew Hyman or ever saw her play. But tonight, even in defeat, the American women gave themselves hope.

As Kirby walked toward the locker room, she spotted a friend, shook her head and snapped her fingers, indicating, "almost." But as she walked, she was smiling.