The USA men celebrated a 3-1 (25-20, 25-19, 17-25, 25-18) victory over Belgium in both teams’ opening match of the Tokyo Qualification Tournament.

Perhaps just as encouraging as the win itself—which one might describe as dominant, outside of the third set—was the performance of USA outside hitter Aaron Russell. The 26-year-old led all players with 19 points, a fabulous showing from a player who did not look 100 percent during last month’s Volleyball Nations League Finals.

Thomas Jaeschke, who is in his first summer back with the team since suffering an ACL tear in June 2018, started in the second outside hitting position for the USA, but collected just three points. He shared time with Garrett Muagututia, who came off the bench in the first three sets and started in the fourth, ending the match with 10 points.

USA men's volleyball Olympic Qualification Tournament Friday
Matt Anderson, David Smith and Aaron Russell put up a triple block for team USA/FIVB photo

Opposite Matt Anderson tallied 17 points on 13 kills, two blocks, and two aces. As a team, the USA out-blocked Belgium nine to five.

Asked after the match what happened in the third set, team captain Taylor Sander said: “They are a good team and they battled the whole match. I’m happy the way our guys responded in the fourth set and came out with the win.”

He continued to say he wasn’t surprised in the least that Belgium put up such a strong fight.

“They’ve pushed us to five sets a lot in the past,” he said, “so for us it was important to get this victory, and we’re glad we’re moving on.”

Earlier in the day, the Netherlands escaped with a come-from-behind five-set victory over Korea in the first match of Pool B action.

On Saturday, the USA takes on Korea, while a match with Netherlands on Sunday looms large. The winner of Pool B, and each of the five other Tokyo Qualification pools being played around the world this week, earns a spot in the 2020 Olympics.

The USA is off to a great start, especially when you consider that captain Sander, who looked like the team’s best outside hitter during VNL Finals, didn’t play a single point in Friday’s match. Head coach John Speraw also has two perfectly capable and well-rested middles in Jeff Jendryk and Mitch Stahl waiting their turn, should Friday’s starters Max Holt and David Smith need relief.

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