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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | VOLLEYBALL

American Men Searching for Miracle Finish

September 21, 2000|DIANE PUCIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — It happened over and over. What the U.S. sent over the net--hard and powerfully spiked shots--would come back as junk from the Yugoslavs.

The soft little shots, the dinks, the balls that just drifted over the outstretched American arms, would settle softly onto the floor. The men wearing red, white and blue would fling themselves to the ground and land in useless heaps.

Strategy met power and strategy won.

Yugoslavia beat the U.S. men in Olympic volleyball pool play, 3-0. The game scores were 25-15, 25-20 and 25-23. The U.S. men improved a little every time but a little improvement isn't going to do it.

The only way for the U.S. (0-3) to advance from pool play into the quarterfinals is to beat the No. 1-ranked team in the world, Italy, and Korea, and lose no more than one game while Argentina is getting swept by Yugoslavia and Russia and not winning any games.

"Realistically, we probably have no chance to continue, so pride is all you can play for," U.S. captain Lloy Ball said. "Our team is real disappointed. It's frustrating. Our team, in the last three years, has done a 360. At worlds in 1997 we were pretty bad. Then we started to do a lot better. Now we're back to being pretty bad again. I'm emotional right now."

Ball, 28 and the setter, had chosen to stick around for four more years after the U.S. suffered an embarrassing ninth-place finish at the Atlanta Olympics.

And earlier this year it looked as if Ball had made a good choice. The U.S. won its first 10 games of a key World League tournament. But ever since, Ball said, everything has been a struggle.

"I don't know what's gone wrong," he said. "It's a little bit of youth, it's a little bit of a lot of things. As captain I wake up every morning trying to find the right button to push. I haven't found the button yet. This is just very, very disheartening."

The U.S. never made much of a run in either of the first two games, then put up a fight in the third.

The crowd was raucous in the Pavilion, a tent-like venue with cozy courtside seating. The Yugoslavian fans were the majority and there was that old Cold War Olympic feeling.

"Die Yanks," one man shouted. There were rhythmic chants of "Yu-go-slavia," and "Ser-bi-a, Ser-bi-a." There were Yugoslav flags and Serbian flags and the sense that a group of transplanted patriots had adopted this match as payback for U.S. involvement in Bosnia.

"Quite frankly we hate Americans," Vlade Vukovic said. Vukovic held up a Serbian flag and led much of the chanting. "I live in Sydney now because my country is a disaster. My country is a disaster because of that." Vukovic pointed to an American flag.

After having everything their own way for two games, though, the Yugoslav fans grew quiet when the U.S. team took leads of 13-11, 15-13, 20-19 and, finally, 21-20.

The final game was tied at 23 when Yugoslavia, the 1996 Olympic bronze medalist, scored when a dink went off the tips of Tom Hoff's fingers. Then John Hyden sent a shot wide off a blocker's hand. The cozy, little tent erupted in noise again. The U.S. team kicked towels and water bottles.

"We have a team that's pretty out of rhythm," Coach Doug Beal said. "I just have to do a better job of getting them to believe in themselves and believe in their ability as a team, and I haven't been able to do that."

Ryan Millar, a middle blocker from San Dimas, was particularly disgusted. He grabbed his head at one point when yet another soft Yugoslavian dink had fooled the U.S.

"We don't have any intensity," he said. "We should be looking forward to the Italy game, but at the moment I'm not looking forward to anything."

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