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By all accounts, the USA men’s volleyball team had a fantastic summer.
A record of 13-6 in the Volleyball Nations League, including a victory over Brazil to win the bronze medal.
And then the Americans took the bronze medal in the recent FIVB World Championships, beating Serbia and setting up what should be a great couple of years heading into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
On one hand, yes, good stuff. On the other, well, coach John Speraw is ready for a breakthrough or two after leading the universe in close finishes.
Remember that the USA took bronze in the 2016 Rio Olympics after losing in five to Italy in the semifinals before beating Russia for third.
This past May, his UCLA men’s team lost in five to Long Beach State in the NCAA men’s national-championship match.
But this summer?
The USA lost to France in five in the VNL semifinals, a tournament in which outside hitter Thomas Jaeschke, the former Loyola star from suburban Wheaton, was lost for the season to a knee injury playing in a victory over Serbia in Chicago.
When the team finally finished up it had a roster of veterans like opposite Matt Anderson, middles Max Holt and David Smith, and libero Erik Shoji. Quite a few young players, who are quickly gaining international and pro experience, filled out the roster, including outside Aaron Russell, outside Taylor Sander, middle Jeff Jendryk, setter Micah Christenson, and outsides Ben Patch and Jake Langlois.
They finished the World Championship at 10-2 and then basically dispersed to their respective homes and/or pro leagues.
Now all attention turns to the final two years of the Olympic quadrennial.
“We’re gonna give it our best shot,” Speraw said. “We’re in a real good place as a team to maximize whatever potential we have in our bodies. That is for sure.
“I’m super proud of being a part of it. I love being a part of this team. It’s not just the relationship with the guys, but with the staff. All these players — in college 25 percent of your roster turns over every year — here you can coach guys for eight years and so there are a lot of really deep relationships there that are very meaningful to all of us and I think that’s what makes this experience so gratifying for all of us. We all love playing for USA.
“I think everyone reading this understands that, but for us it’s something really deep emotionally. I’m grateful to be a part of it all.”
We spoke last week as Speraw, still winding down as the national-team coach for a while, began preparing for the upcoming UCLA men’s season.
VBM: It was a pretty good summer for your team.
Speraw: Yeah, but it could have been great. That’s the feeling I’m left with, what all of us are left with. It could have been something exceptionally special. We were in a position to do that and couldn’t quite put it over the top. I thought overall it was good.
VBM: Was there one thing that was missing? Like when you were watching that match (against Poland) or some time during the summer where you were saying maybe we’re one player short in one spot or I don’t like this rotation or this is what we’ve got to fix. Anything like that?
Speraw: No, I don’t think that at all. There were a number of times during the World Championships where I thought it was the best volleyball team I’d ever seen a U.S. team play. Certainly that I’ve been around. We were passing the ball really well, our offense was crisp. I couldn’t figure out who was our best player, we had so many options, Taylor, Aaron, was it Matty, was it Micah, was it Erik, we had all these guys who were playing really good volleyball.
Most people call me up and tell me congratulations because they see in context that we won a medal at the World Championships for the first time in 20-something years. But I know that everybody in that locker room is really disappointed and I don’t want to lack graciousness, but all of us knew we were capable of winning that tournament and we just ended up a little bit short. And when you’re in that place where you’re capable of doing that and you don’t quite get there, it hurts. The bronze was bittersweet and it’s happened to us a couple of times now, and I think we’re ready for something a little bit more.
VBM: On the other hand, maybe that’s a good place to be heading into these next two years as the stretch run into the Olympics begins.
Speraw: Yeah, it is. The thing in my mind is that in men’s volleyball, there are so many good teams. So when you have these opportunities, it’s tough to let them go because you just don’t know what will happen next year. You’ve got Russia and Poland and France is going to come back and Italy’s going to come back and Iran is going to come back after this and be better, so we’re going to have to keep working.
Yeah, it is a good place and I think we know we’re a good volleyball team and there were times there when we were a great volleyball team.
VBM: No doubt. Was there anyone who played better than you thought they would, where you said, wow, what a great couple of months this person had?
Speraw: I think you have to look at who improved and committed the most over the training block and I think I was most impressed with Erik Shoji. I think he really committed himself in the weight room, he was PR-ing on a bunch of lifts. I was impressed that he wanted to be better when he was already, I think, the best libero in the world. I think he’s really taking a hard look at the different aspects of his game. He’s for sure the best passer in the world and he’s been working on his defense trying to get a little bit better. And he did.
We put a lot on Micah’s plate this year because we were doing some different things with our offense, and I was pretty pleased with how he ultimately ran that this summer.
I am very optimistic going forward, there’s no question.
VBM: This roster — and of course there might be some changes — but the core of this roster is a bunch of guys right in their athletic prime. Matt’s a little older …
Speraw: Or Max, they’re right in the same class.
VBM: But everybody else it seems is at that time when you’re saying all you guys are entering your perfect athletic prime in these next two years. That’s got to be encouraging.
Speraw: Absolutely. I think there’s a lot of confidence because we essentially started building this team in 2013 when we added Micah Christenson when he was a sophomore in college, we made the move to put Matty on the right, and over the next couple of years we added Taylor Sander in 2014, and then we added Aaron Russell in 2015, and then Thomas Jaeschke. So this core group of players has been together since the early part, the halfway, of the last quad. Now they’ve all been through the Olympics and they’re playing professional volleyball for a number of seasons. There’s a lot of comfort with one another and a lot of confidence knowing who your teammate is. They’ve been through a lot of battles together and a lot of confidence comes from that.
VBM: Are there any young players who are going to get into the mix? Any who have a chance to fight for positions who weren’t on this roster?
Speraw: We’re always looking. There are some great players out there. Obviously the guys at Long Beach State, all three of them. And Micah Ma’a. And there are some good, young liberos out there. In the last quad we had guys come in and crack the starting lineup all the way to Aaron Russell in 2015. That’s the year before the Olympic Games. I don’t think I see that right now.
When I think of young guys I think of Jendryk and by the time we get to the Olympics he’ll have two whole seasons playing professionally. I think we’re in a little more of a mature player stage.
VBM: What was the message the last time you gathered? Did you have a meeting where you send them off with words of wisdom or do you finish the Worlds and just disperse?
Speraw: That’s always the most unusual thing about the national team. We begin all scattered because guys come home (from their pro teams) at different times. You never have an official start time, you never get to get into a room and establish some goals and talk about philosophies (laughs). Guys come back from overseas, guys get healthy, and you can add to the roster as you’re traveling around the world in the VNL.
You really get going in the middle of summer at the end everybody scatters. More than half the team never came home. They just stayed in Europe. We had 14 on the team and only six were on the flight home. You say your goodbyes in the lobby of the hotel the night before and everybody goes on their way.
VBM: Staff stays the same for the rest of the quad?
(The staff includes assistant coaches Rob Neilson and Brian Thornton, manager and technical coordinator Nate Ngo, athletic trainer Aaron Brock, team psychologist Andrea Becker, doctors Andrew Gregory and David Dyck, scout coach Jon Parry, consultant coach Mike Wall and strength coach Tim Pelot.)
Speraw: I sure hope so. We’re in a real good spot. We have a really, really good staff.
VBM: Did you have a final message to everyone?
Speraw: I can’t honestly remember what my final message was in the locker room. It was a really hard 24 hours for us. The loss to Poland, we played the 9:15 p.m. match, so we didn’t get home until 1-ish, and everybody was really, really devastated by that loss.
The hard part about these tournaments is they don’t happen every year. They happen once every four years, so the guys on the roster who are veterans know there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever get an opportunity like that again in your life.
There was a lot of emotion and I wasn’t sure we were going to be able to come back and play well in that bronze-medal match. In the Olympic Games, you lose in the semifinal you’ve got a day to regroup. Here we lost, get back, have something to eat, you’re probably in bed at 2 a.m. at the earliest — I know I was up until 4 — and then you’ve got to be back on the bus to go back to the gym at 2 p.m. the next afternoon. We were not in a very good emotional place to play a bronze-medal match.
I’m really impressed with their emotional ability to come back and do that. It’s always better to come in third than fourth. The one thing they should be proud of — and I did say this in the locker room — you’ve now medaled in every major tournament you’re capable of playing in. And that’s something that incredibly significant and something few teams have ever done. We medaled in World Cup, Olympic Games, World Championships, World League and VNL. There’s nothing left.
Now the only thing that’s left is seeing if we can improve the color of that medal.