USA men need to bounce back in Rio

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Max Holt, Micah Christenson, Erik Shoji

This isn’t basketball, but the USA men’s Olympic volleyball team — with eight of the 12 players first-time Olympians — is right out of the Dick Vitale playbook.

Can’t you just imagine if Dickie V were calling the matches he’d refer to many of the Americans as “Diaper Dandies?”

For example, the setter, Micah Christenson, is a year removed from USC, but this is his team to run. Three outsides are first-timers: Thomas Jaeschke left Loyola a year early to play pro last year. Aaron Russell is a year out of Penn State and Taylor Sander is two years removed from BYU.

“We’re a young team still navigating in some ways,” said John Speraw, a former USA assistant but now a first-time Olympics head coach.

There are plenty of seasoned veterans, too, on a team that appears to have no margin for error when it starts play in Rio on Sunday. The pool in which the Americans play is simply brutal and they are coming off a very tough couple of matches in the World League that, at the least, leaves them wanting.

“We’ve been evaluating the areas we need to improve,” Speraw said. “We took a look at all of our stats and the video from the World League and identified a couple of areas that can make a difference for us. We’ve just been training in those areas.”

Plenty seemed to surface when the USA was swept by Italy and then, needing to win 3-0 or 3-1 against Brazil to keep from being eliminated, lost the third and fourth sets and in the fifth, when it was moot, the last five points in a 15-12 defeat. It made for a long plane ride home from Poland.

Micah Christenson
Micah Christenson

“It left a bitter taste,” Christenson said. “We came back with a lot of hunger with an intent to get better. It was deflating because we know we’re better than that.”

Two-time Olympian and NBC analyst Kevin Barnett agreed.

“This is not a team that lacks the talent to win a gold medal,” Barnett said.

“This is not a team that has to have some miraculous run to win a gold medal. This is a team that if they play to their potential they are in the mix for a gold medal. They have already displayed that. They are capable of winning the gold medal.”

For that to happen, a lot of things have to go right, starting with first match with Canada. The USA is in a pool with the host team, Brazil, the aforementioned Italy, and Canada, France and Mexico. Only the match with Mexico is a so-called “gimme.”

That last World League match was July 15, which left little time to get back to Anaheim for more training and then the trip to Rio. No wonder Christenson said, “It’s been a whirlwind.”

Christenson, while so young, has a tremendous amount of experience on the highest international levels. He played together this past pro season with teammate Reid Priddy (a four-time Olympian nearly twice his age at 38) in Italy. For that matter, he’s been on the Olympic radar since the Hawaiian showed up at USC five years ago.

“It’s prepared me,” Christenson said. “Playing on bigger stages on a pro team with money, sponsors involved and all that goes with it. It’s a small microcosm of what the Olympics are going to be — I’m not  comparing it to that — but there are things I’ve learned professionally overseas and just being a professional that have prepared me for the Olympics.”

The USA is most experienced at middle, with David Lee playing in his third Games, David Smith back for his second and Max Holt, an alternate in London in 2012. Lee and Priddy are the only members of the 2008 team that won gold in Beijing. The USA placed fourth in London.

“It’s nice to have people who have been there and done that,” Christenson said. “And who have succeeded at that level, not just having been there but won. Just hearing of their experiences, how they dealt with things, has been really cool.”

Opposite Matt Anderson, at times the best player in the world, is back for his second Olympics, while opposite Murphy Troy is making his Olympics debut.

And then there are the remarkable Shoji brothers, sons of legendary Hawaii women’s coach Dave Shoji. Kawika is the backup setter, while Erik is playing libero as well as anyone right now. The Stanford products are first-time Olympians.

“Erik Shoji has had a great summer,” Speraw said. “He’s passing the ball at such a high level.”

Since two-thirds of the roster is new to the Games, Christenson said that Troy came up with the idea that they all sit down and have a question-and-answer gathering about things to expect at the Olympics, from dress code to knowing about sponsors to just about anything.

“It’s a lot more than I thought, but the staff has done a great job of minimizing what we have to worry about,” Christenson said.

The focus, of course, has to be ready from the get-go on Sunday. If nothing else, Speraw is comfortable with the depth and balance he has at his disposal.

“And that’s more so than last year at the World Cup,” Speraw said. “Last year Thomas Jaeschke  and Reid were both injured, Thomas quite late in the training process. So we went with rotation of just two (outsides) throughout the World Cup. That’s not traditionally how you win that tournament. Traditionally you win with depth.

“And I hardly played Murphy Troy, Matty carried the load the whole way. And now you’re seeing that change. Murph has continued to improve and gets better every year. So when Matty’s not connecting or not feeling it we have a viable option. Reid Priddy and Thomas Jaeschke are healthy and that gives us more flexibility.

“We have a lot of guys with different strengths and weaknesses and so we played a lot of guys in World League and so I feel very comfortable with the group we have.

“We’re deeper, we’re a better volleyball team and it’s just how we put it together.”

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