The Olympics had moved to only hours before the Closing Ceremonies Sunday when the U.S. men's volleyball team found itself in a position that, a month ago, it would have found astonishing. The United States led Russia in the second set, a chance to even things up, the bronze medal on the line.
Yet when the Americans rose to clinch the set, the Russians -- with seven players on their roster 6 feet 7 or taller -- rose with them, and blocked the would-be winner. Russia used that moment as a spark to a dominant 25-22, 27-25, 25-16 sweep, dashing the hopes for the first U.S. men's volleyball medal since 1992.
"Obviously, I feel pretty bad right now," said captain Lloy Ball, who will retire from international competition after this, his third Olympics. "Having only to win one match out of two to get an Olympic medal, especially playing a team that we beat in the past -- a team we think we can beat -- it's disappointing.
"But our inexperience and our inability to get points, against their experience and their ability to block points, was the difference."
In truth, the United States didn't expect to be playing for a medal -- "I didn't come here with high expectations," Ball said -- and wouldn't have been if not for a stirring comeback victory over Greece in the quarterfinals. But once the Americans got to the medal round, they didn't win another set, getting swept by Brazil in the semifinals and Russia for the bronze.
The hurt showed afterward for a variety or reasons. The United States had played so well against Greece -- when it looked dead in the fourth set, only to storm back and win it in five -- that its expectations were altered immediately afterward.
"I think we kind of crescendoed at the Greek match, and then kind of fell off from there," Ball said. "I think that was such an emotional night for all of us, I'm not sure we ever really recovered from it."
The Americans also never recovered from a pair of crucial calls that went against them in the second set, calls that swung the match. With the United States leading 17-16, Russia's Serguey Tetyukhin nearly ran out of the gym to make an outstanding save to keep the point alive, and the Russians ended up with a chance for a kill. The ball, though, sailed wide, according to the line judge. But referee Kim Kun Tae overruled the line judge, and awarded the point to Russia, tying the match.
Then, with the Americans trying to stay alive in the set, trailing 26-25, Ball was called for reaching over the net on set point. Russia got the point, and the set, and the U.S. team never recovered.
"I try to pride myself on giving the officials the benefit of the doubt," Ball said, "but the gentleman who was the [official in the chair] has been bad throughout the tournament. . . . Two points, when you lose 27-25, and you're fighting your way back. This is our livelihood. This is our dream, and to have it taken away by someone who overrules a line judge is very unfortunate."
The question for the team now is what happens in the future. The United States won gold in 1984 and 1988, but hasn't been near that form since. Now, the team must try to convince its members not to turn to beach volleyball and stick together for 2008. Coming close to a medal here may have achieved that.
"I think it fires up some guys," said Ryan Millar, a former college player of the year at BYU. "We have a young team here. We're going to have a lot of guys back for Beijing, and they're going to be, now, experienced guys that have played in the Olympics, and know how to play in big matches. It's going to be exciting to see what kind of team we have at that time."