Rio de Janeiro – Four years ago, West Seneca’s Matt Anderson had been part of a U.S. men’s volleyball team that lost to Italy in the quarterfinals. Now, on Friday afternoon, he stood there in the mixed zone, contemplating the same discouraging result.
“I don’t think we can compare the two,” Anderson said, “because it’s different teams and different situations.”
There is one major difference: In London, Italy swept the U.S. men out of medal contention. Anderson admitted it took him a long time to get over that defeat. But he and his teammates need to put this one behind them in a hurry. They have to play for a bronze medal against the Brazil-Russia loser at 9:30 Sunday morning.
It will not be easy to put this disappointment behind them. Their dream was gold, and it had looked so promising after they won four straight games and were leading, two sets to one, in the semifinal against the Italians at Maracanazino Arena.
But they couldn’t put it away. The Americans squandered a lead late in the fourth set, as they had in the first, and were soundly outplayed in the fifth. The Italians, the more skilled and clutch team, escaped with a 30-28, 26-28, 9-25, 25-22, 15-9 and will play for its first-ever Olympic gold on Sunday.
This loss might sting even longer than the one in London, because the Americans entered the semifinal on a hot streak, having found their competitive and emotional edge after losing their first two games in Rio. But they blew a big lead and failed to convert four set points in the opening set.
They recovered nicely, rallying to win the second set and blowing the Italians out in the third set. They were up by three again late in the fourth, but let that one get away, too, as Italy ran off the last six points of the set. The U.S. seemed staggered in the decisive fifth set and was never really in it.
“I’m disappointed in the way we finished that fifth set,” Anderson said. “But I’m not disappointed in our effort and our intention to do well out there.
“We were playing well. We carried off that third set and we knew they were going to come out and fight. When a team loses like that in a set, you’re going to get everything they have thrown at you. I thought we handled it well for most of that set; there was a couple of plays we could have taken care of earlier in the set to make that lead bigger and put us in a better spot.”
The Italians made the key blocks, the big saves – including one where two players swatted the ball while on the floor to save a set point in the first – and the spikes in critical moments. They had the best spikers on the court in Ivan Zaytsev and Osmany Juantorena, prodigious athletes with strong Olympic roots in other lands.
Zaytsev’s father, Vyacheslav, completed for the Russian volleyball team in three Olympics. His mother, Irina Pozdnyakova, once held the world record in the 200-meter breaststroke. Ivan was born in the small city of Spoleto when his father was playing professionally there in 1988.
The other top spiker, Osmany Juantorena, is the nephew of Cuban track legend Alberto Juantorena, the only man to win the 400 and 800 meters in the same Olympics. Osmany was born in Cuba but, like Zaytsev, has Italian citizenship.
Anderson is considered one of the top handful of players in the world, but he wasn’t at his best against Italy. He had several bad serves, had lots of his spikes blocked back for points and several soft finesse shots returned, too.
“I think I played all right,” Anderson said, “but I definitely could pick up my game.”
“I don’t really have a clear view of what was happening out there, because being part of it, you’re in the moment and you try to put all errors and mistakes behind you and go to the next point. You need to, because if you’re carrying that stuff through the match, you won’t do well.”
David Lee, the team captain, said the U.S. seemed to lose some of the edge it had acquired during the tournament after blowing out Italy in the third set. “We definitely could see a lull in our energy,” Lee said.
“I know there were some points in the match where we looked disappointed in the way things were going,” said coach John Speraw. “But we did a good job of regrouping. I’d like to have some points back in the first set. We were almost down, 0-2. In the end, we weren’t skilled enough.
“It’s really, really hard,” Speraw said. “I almost feel like today we need to mourn and get it out of our system, you know? I know that we will. You can’t not do that. But then tomorrow, we’re going to have to regroup and start preparing ourselves for the next step.”
That means bouncing back one last time, knowing a medal is at stake. There’s a chance to leave here with something precious hanging around their necks, instead of simply leaving with their heads hanging as they did in London.
“Our goal was gold, but we can’t have it now,” Anderson said, “so our goal is bronze, and to take home a medal. This is our gold-medal match, so we’re going to give everything we have. We’ll come out of this next match with empty tanks.”