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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

U.S. Men Have to Dig Deep After Losing to Argentina

September 18, 2000|MIKE KUPPER | TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

SYDNEY, Australia — Nobody figured the U.S. men's team to be a sure-as-shootin' gold-medal contender in the Olympic volleyball tournament. On the other hand, nobody figured the Americans would be looking up out of a big hole after the first match, either.

But they are.

And what they are looking at in the immediate future is a match Tuesday against Russia, which, nearly a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has regained its stature as one of the world's elite teams.

What they are looking at in the long run is, well, who knows? Will there even be a long run? There was no such thing four years ago in Atlanta, where the U.S. played a particularly uninspired brand of volleyball and quietly settled for a ninth-place finish, failing to make it out of pool play.

Is this a repeat in the making? Perhaps not, but losing to Argentina, a team the supposedly improved U.S. has dominated, makes that question considerably less than far-fetched. For in Pool B with the Americans, besides Russia, is top-ranked Italy.

Things would look brighter for the U.S. if they had handed Argentina its customary beating Sunday.

Instead, after winning the first game, 26-24, the U.S. was beaten more convincingly in each of the next three, 25-23, 25-21 and 25-18.

The possible long-range consequences were lost on no one.

"That's a match we should win if we're going to qualify for the top eight," said Coach Doug Beal, the man brought back specifically to restore luster to the U.S. men's program, the man who coached America to a surprising gold medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

"Unfortunately, this is one of those games that can make or break your Olympics," team captain Lloy Ball said. "You obviously hate to lose to a team we should beat, a team we've beaten many times before. It's in our hands now. We'll see what our team is made of."

What it was made of Sunday was hard to tell. Even in winning the first game, the U.S. looked befuddled at times. And whenever it was comeback time in the subsequent games, Marcos Milinkovic, Alejandro Spajic and Leandro Maly stuffed comeback thoughts down the Americans' throats, right along with the volleyball.

Milinkovic had 20 kills, Spajic 11--many of those from the backcourt--and Maly 10, to go with his six blocks.

"We just never got a real good offensive flow," Ball said. "There was not a lot of cohesiveness. We hadn't played in three weeks and I think it showed in our inconsistency."

The U.S. had been scheduled to play a tournament in France before coming here but Beal reconsidered and sent a "B" team, on the theory that rest and recuperation would do his Olympians more good.

"Maybe [the time off] had something to do with the way we played tonight, but we'll never know," he said. "The other side of that is, we could have played more matches and been more beaten up."

Beal said he found no fault with his team's effort, only its execution.

"We played hard; there was nothing wrong with the effort," he said. "And it wasn't so much what [Argentina] did, it was more what we didn't do. I thought most of the time we were getting blocked, our hitters were taking swings they shouldn't have been taking. . . . We have to play more relaxed and we have to play smarter."

All of which can be done, Beal said.

"We've done it," he added. "We've played lots better than this. Losing is a part of the sports world and we now have to get ready for the next game."

Right, that one Tuesday against Russia.

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