RIO DE JANEIRO – West Seneca’s Matt Anderson says he has never watched a tape of the Olympic quarterfinal loss to Italy in 2012. It was bad enough living through it once.
Anderson was the youngest player on that U.S. men’s volleyball team in London. That team had high expectations after finishing first in their pool, only to get swept by the Italians in the quarters and limp out of England without a medal.
It took him awhile to get over that loss. Though he was an Olympic rookie, Anderson felt he had let his team down whey they needed him the most that day.
“It was a huge burden on me,” Anderson said Wednesday. “I thought that personally I could have done a lot better in that match to help my team win. But I forgot about it, because I’m on a new team now.”
But Anderson learned from that crushing setback in London, and he believed in his heart that when the U.S. arrived at that same point in the Olympics four years later, they would be ready. And that’s exactly what happened here Wednesday.
This time, Anderson was on the sweeping end. He and a rising, young supporting cast played their finest game of the year, trouncing a favored Poland squad in three sets – 25-23, 25-22, 25-20 – to move on to Friday’s semifinals against the Italy-Iran winner.
Just one week ago, the U.S. men were reeling after losing their first two matches to Canada and Italy and on the verge of missing the knockout round heading into a game against Brazil. They’re 4-0 since that low point and appear to be peaking at just the right time.
“Geez, well, we don’t want to speak too soon, right?” Anderson said. “We’ve still got two matches.”
True, but they’re a very dangerous team at the moment. In a seven-day period, they beat the two top-ranked teams in the world – Poland and Brazil, and they took down Brazil in a must-win situation before a hostile crowd at Maracanazinho Arena.
Adversity seemed to bring out the best in the U.S. team, a resilient bunch that seems to thrive on crisis. They were emotionally primed for Poland and responded every time the Poles made a run, much as they had done against Brazil the week before.
The opening set went back and forth until the U.S. took a 17-16 lead. They held on from there, as a monster Anderson spike put them up 23-20. Poland took a 17-12 lead in the second set and appeared to be taking control. Not this bunch.
With Olympic rookies Aaron Russell and Taylor Sander leading the way, the Americans stunned Poland with a 13-5 run to win the second set. They didn’t let up until they were hugging on the court after sweeping the 2014 world champions out of Rio.
“It’s awesome to have two of the best left spikers in the world (Sander and Russell) on my team,” Anderson said. “They’ve been so solid in this tournament. We learned today that we don’t have to do anything special. We just have to play our type of volleyball, trust and respect the game and know we have a fight with anybody.”
U.S. coach John Speraw said they also learned that you need to play with energy and passion during an Olympics. The urgency was oddly missing early, particularly in a shocking loss to Canada, playing its first Olympic match in 24 years, in the opener.
“You alway hope it goes more smoothly,” said Speraw, coaching his first Olympic team. “But I had a hunch that this team, young and inexperienced as it was, and not having faced tons of adversity, would need to face some adversity if we were going to reach our very best.”
Anderson had the London disappointment to draw on. He has been up and down in the Games, but he has been there when the team needed him most, providing the emotional and physical spark you’d expect from a man who is on any short list for the best player in the world.
He said he wanted to lead this team, to show by his actions how to respond in tough times. Anderson felt his decision to get away from volleyball two years ago and find balance in his life would make him better suited to help in an emotional crisis. You have to think his influence was important when this U.S. team was down last week.
Of course, it’s on the court where Anderson is most effective. He has been there for his team when it mattered, and the younger guys have reciprocated.
“Matt played a great match,” Speraw said.” It wasn’t his best. He had a couple of close swings that were a little bit out, but he hung in there and made some great contributions down the stretch. I thought he was really good defensively.
“He’s having a great tournament, and that’s what we needed from him. You need your best player to have a great tournament to have a shot, and that’s what he’s doing.”
So Anderson is on to Friday’s semifinals, one step farther than he went in London, one win from an Olympic medal. Sander said Anderson seemed relieved to have survived the quarterfinals this time, but Matt sounded like a man with bigger objectives.
“No, I’m not satisfied,” Anderson said. “I think even if we win the gold medal, I still have the hunger in me to win more medals and to continue going forward with this team, this staff, this organization. It’s been great to me over the years, and I have to do my part to give back to them.”