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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Newest Oden Sister Serves U.S. Well From the Start

Volleyball: Bev joins Elaina in leading team to opening-match victory over Ukraine.

July 21, 1996|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Her last name is a veteran of several Olympic Games, but Bev Oden is a first-timer, and her entrance Saturday was a good one.

Oden opened serve against Ukraine as the U.S. women's volleyball team began its pursuit of a medal, and before the first sideout, the Americans had a 6-0 lead.

They led, 8-0, before Ukraine scored its first point, and the Americans went on to an impressive opening-match victory, 15-8, 15-5, 15-11, in front of a chanting home-court crowd of 14,750 at the Omni.

Oden's sister, Elaina, is her teammate, though the Irvine family's dream of having a trio on the team ended with older sister Kim's retirement after the 1992 Games.

"Even though they did it and I went to Barcelona and watched, I had no idea what it would be like," said Bev, whose solid blocking helped the U.S. win. "My stomach was doing back flips this morning. It was really exciting. It's my first Olympics, and I was just fired up."

Led by the powerful hitting of Tara Cross-Battle, who had 16 kills, the U.S. team jumped ahead, 11-3, in the second game before Ukraine made a contest of the third. The Americans' lead in the decisive game was cut to 13-11 before a kill by veteran-turned-substitute Caren Kemner helped turn the tide and Elaina Oden's spike made a moot point of a terrific Ukrainian dig.

It was an emotional outing for the U.S. players, moved by support from the spectators, many of whom stood and cheered before Lori Endicott served match point.

"Unbelievable," said Kemner, 31, who joined the national team in 1985, just after the Los Angeles Games. "That, for me, was the first time in 12 years I've played in front of that many American fans. Usually about half the fans are cheering for Brazil, half for Cuba. I can't wait to see this crowd for the gold-medal game."

The players waved in appreciation as they left the court, and Cross-Battle, a former Long Beach State player who has become the star of this team, called the reception "fabulous."

The match was also emotional for Ukraine, which is competing as an independent nation for the first time.

A cluster of about half a dozen supporters jumped and shook the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag from their seats near the court with each point by their countrywomen, even though the points were few and far between in the early going.

Taras "Terry" Liskevych, the American coach, was moved as well. His parents were born in Ukraine, and he was born in Munich in 1948. The family emigrated to the United States when he was a child.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a spot in my heart for them. I'm a Ukrainian immigrant," he said. "I came to this country when I was 3 years old and grew up in the Ukrainian community in Chicago. I'm fluent in Ukrainian. But I coach the U.S.A. I'm an American of Ukrainian descent. I don't care who we're playing. I want to win."

Ukraine's Natalya Bozhenova said she and her teammates were "very nervous to be in front of such a big crowd," and that "the Americans outclassed us."

Liskevych called the Ukrainians "a good team" that didn't get its bearings until too late.

"They played well in the third game. I think they were nervous," he said. "It's their first time in the Olympics, and they didn't expect to be here. When you don't expect to be here, this is big-time. I thought they blocked us better in the third set than in the first two."

The match was the Americans' first of five in round-robin play this week. Eight of the 12 teams in the tournament will advance to single-elimination play next week, with medal matches scheduled for Aug. 3, the next-to-last day of the Games.

The United States is picked to win bronze, with Cuba and Brazil favored ahead of the Americans.

Except for Bev Oden, the starters are an experienced group. Cross-Battle, Teee Williams, Endicott, Tammy Liley and Elaina Oden were on the '92 team that won the bronze in Barcelona. Eight players are Olympic veterans, though Paula Weishoff, 34, is the only player left from the team that won the silver in Los Angeles in 1984.

Danielle Scott, Kristin Klein, Elaine Youngs and Bev Oden are the only players without Olympic experience.

"Bev's a rookie, but she played great tonight," Liskevych said. "She played like a veteran and did a great job blocking."

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