SEATTLE -- The hard work of the U.S. men's volleyball team returned early dividends in the Goodwill Games, scoring a stirring, comeback victory over the Soviets Tuesday night, winning by 8-15, 15-13, 17-16, 9-15 and 15-6.
The United States dominated men's volleyball in the '80s, winning Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1988. But over the past two years, the leaders of those teams have either retired or accepted lucrative offers to join the European pro volleyball circuit. This year, new coach Bill Neville was virtually starting from scratch.
"When all those guys left, we had nothing behind them," Neville said. "Only now are we starting a development program."
Although the Cuba is favored to win the gold here, Neville's squad has clinched a berth in the semifinals by winning its first two games. Neville called the victory, before a near-capacity crowd of 6,500 at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, his team's biggest this year.
"We were able to achieve lots of important things tonight we could never develop in practice," said Neville. "The crowd was great, we were on live national TV, there was lots of hype. . . . We got down early, and when that's happened, I've seen the team go, 'here we go,' sometimes, but not tonight."
Neville said the United States came out tense against the Soviets, who generally had the second-best team in the world when the Americans were on top. After the 15-8 first-game loss, the Americans trailed by 13-4 in the second game. Then Neville took out 6-foot-3 outside hitter Allen Allen and replaced him with 6-7 Bryan Ivie, a bigger but less-experienced player.
The Soviets suddenly found they no longer could block over the front row. The United States scored three successive points, and then Neville brought in team captain Scott Fortune for middle blocker Mark Arnold. Arnold and Fortune are both 6-6, but Fortune is a better leaper. Fortune, Ivie and 6-10 Craig Buck, the only key member returning from the two gold medal teams, began dominating the Soviets.
When the U.S. team drew within 13-11, the Soviets called time but couldn't regroup. Buck served out the game for a 15-13 victory that produced a standing ovation and a chants of "USA! USA!"
Buck had gone to play in Europe just as teammates Steve Timmons, Karch Kiraly had, but he returned to the team in June. Neville has reversed a longstanding policy of not allowing players who turn pro to come back to the national team, feeling he had to find experience and leadership to develop the U.S. program.
Fortune, Troy Tanner and Jon Root were nonstarters on the Seoul Olympic team. Fortune said bringing back Buck helped reinforce some lessons Fortune and the other veterans were trying to impart.
"It was tough for me and Jon and Troy to try and teach these guys what it takes to win, because we weren't really out there on the gold medal teams," Fortune said. "You could sense the guys were saying, 'Hey, you aren't proven starters.' When Craig says it, they listen."
The third game started well for the Americans, who led by 9-6 on Fortune's spike. Then the U.S.S.R. took advantage of U.S. mistakes, taking a 14-10 lead.
One point from a 2-1 lead in games,the Soviets let it slip away. Buck and Fortune brought the United States to 14-13 when the Soviets called time out. When play resumed, a Fortune block tied the score at 14. After trading points, the Soviets returned Javier Gaspar's serve out of bounds and the Americans had the 2-1 lead.
The Soviets stormed through the fourth game, winning easily. In the fifth-game showdown, a recent rule change means that every volley would result in a point being scored, regardless of who was serving. The U.S. team used the format to grab a quick lead and took it from there.
"We started to believe that we were winning a little too early," said the U.S.S.R.'s Dmitri Fomin.