Halfway to Brazil.
That may be hard to fathom, but this summer marks the midpoint of the quadrennial and the U.S. Men’s National Team—in many ways as young as you could imagine—seems to be in pretty good shape after getting off to a 7-1 start in World League play.
For example, Taylor Sander, the young former NCAA star who just finished at BYU, has led the team on occasion in hitting. Setter Micah Christenson still has a year to go at USC.
“The team’s young,” veteran David Lee said. “Really young.”
“It’s cool. It’s exciting to see the new talent coming in and the depth that’s being produced in the college ranks,” said David Smith, 29, a 2012 Olympian and former UC Irvine middle. “It’s good to see.”
Lee, the 2008 and 2012 Olympian is 32 but not fazed. And he couldn’t imagine being that young in this situation.
“I wouldn’t have even been given a chance at that age,” the 6-foot-8 middle blocker said with a laugh. “But we have a different system now. Before it was somewhat seniority-based, where they took experience over youth.
“Now if you’re playing well you have a chance to start on the national team. It’s a good thing, but we go through a lot of changes.”
That’s OK with John Speraw, the former UCLA player who had such success at UC Irvine before taking over at his alma mater in 2013.
“I feel good about where we are relative to where we were last year,” says Speraw, 42. “I see that we’re better and much more integrated as a team. We understand how we want to play the game, and I actually think we’re a little further ahead at that than I thought [before the start of World League].”
The U.S. started World League 7-0 before finally losing June 21 to Bulgaria in suburban Chicago, 15-12 in the fifth after being down two games to none. Sander led the team in scoring for the second match in a row. He had 18 points—13 kills, four blocks, and an ace—a night after getting 20 points in a four-set victory over Bulgaria. In that one, Sander had 14 kills, three blocks, and three aces.
Earlier in the tournament, the U.S. won a couple of matches at Bulgaria, beat the Russians twice in Long Beach, and won twice against Serbia at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
They hadn’t practiced as a group before gathering in Bulgaria, so Speraw was even more pleased with the outcomes. But the team sustained a big blow in Bulgaria, however, when veteran outside hitter Reid Priddy blew out his knee.
Priddy, 34, the 2008 and 2012 Olympian from Loyola Marymount was not only playing extremely well—he had collected 13 points by the time he got hurt—but was a stabilizing force on the team.
“He understood that role and was growing into it,” Speraw said, the disappointment of losing Priddy obvious on his face. “I had the sense that he was very comfortable in that role and he was also playing at a very high level, maybe as well as I’ve seen him play in a long time.”
Speraw is hardly giving up on Priddy, however.
“Reid will come back. He’ll rehab and come back,” Speraw said. “There are two years [before Rio] and as professional and hard-working as Reid is, we know he’s going to come back.
“But it does give us an opportunity in the meantime to look at some other guys and see who can develop and step up in that role.”
Another veteran, Matt Anderson, who has been the U.S. team’s leading scorer every season since 2011, has had a good summer. The 6'9" outside from Penn State, who at 25 was the youngest player on the 2012 Olympic team, had 15 points in the last match against Bulgaria, including 10 kills, as he played both outside and opposite.
Middle Max Holt had 13 points in the match: six kills, three blocks, and three aces. Holt, the 6'9" middle from Penn State, is 27 and drew plenty of praise from the head coach.
“We’ve made a lot of improvements from last year to this year,” said veteran outside Paul Lotman, the 2012 Olympian from Long Beach State. “We got a quick start to the summer and I think we’re playing pretty well right now … As a team we’re a little bit closer. I think we’re becoming friends and the more time you spend as a team is really important in volleyball.”
“We knew going into this quad that this was going to be a youth movement for us,” Speraw continued. “There’s a core group of guys who have been the basis of our success at USA Volleyball for the last three Olympics. That can’t continue for forever and I knew that coming into this quad, that we’d be taking a look at a lot of guys and in some respects we’re going to need some younger guys to step into leadership roles earlier than before.”
What’s more, Speraw said the youth movement is not about the future but the now. There are not only Sander and Christenson but former Stanford libero Erik Shoji, 24.
“We’re young and have a lot fire,” Lee said.
“I believe that some of these young guys can be elite players on the international scene by Rio,” Speraw said. “There are guys here who have the opportunity to become great players. And if you have that many on your roster, there’s no reason we can’t be great in Rio and certainly great in the Olympic qualifier. Right? I mean, that’s what it really comes down to.
“We’ve got to maintain focus on the most important tournament that’s ahead of us and that’s the Olympic qualifying process.”
That starts with the World Cup in September 2015. The top two teams in that tournament qualify, Speraw points out, and then the U.S. will compete in the zone process in the spring of 2016.
“We have time to get Reid healthy, we have time to continue to develop some young guys, and many of these guys will have the opportunity to play professionally overseas for a year or two and that will be invaluable for this team.”
The U.S. men travel to Russia for two matches June 27-28, then go to Serbia for matches July 4 and July 6, and, if they qualify, play in the final round in Florence, Italy, July 16-20.
“I think we’re on the right track,” Lee said. “Our training is highly competitive. The guys are focused and not only thinking big picture but we’re approaching every game as in the next point is the only point that matters. We’re focusing on the here and now, but we should be good.”