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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | SPORTS BY SPORT
/ Volleyball

U.S. Longshots Set to Become Real Big Shots

September 27, 2000|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — Can you dig it?

The U.S. women's volleyball team--once not even a sure bet to qualify for the Olympics--is in the semifinals, one victory from a medal.

These are the Underdogs Down Under.

Underrated and under the radar.

After an epic five-set victory over South Korea on Tuesday--26-24, 17-25, 25-23, 25-27, 16-14--the U.S. will face Russia on Thursday for the right to play for the gold medal.

Even if the U.S. loses, it plays for the bronze Saturday against the loser of the other semifinal between Cuba and Brazil.

"We knew in our hearts we could pull this off," said Logan Tom, a strikingly talented 19-year-old who will be a Stanford sophomore when the Olympics are over.

"This is probably the tensest match I've been in because the stakes were so high.

"I was basically shaking at the end."

It was a match so close that four of the five sets were decided by two points, and South Korea actually scored four more points than the U.S. did during the 117-minute match in front of 7,496 at the Sydney Entertainment Center.

This is a team that was given little chance of reaching the quarterfinals, with a clutch of younger players surrounding Danielle Scott, 28, and Tara Cross-Battle, 32, veterans of the 1996 team that finished a disappointing seventh in Atlanta after winning the bronze in Barcelona in 1992.

"We're playing with a lot of heart right now," said Scott, who had 25 kills and five blocks. "Experience? Whatever. Right now it's about emotion and heart and executing."

After failing to close out the match in the fourth set because of a spate of nervous errors, the U.S. fell behind, 12-9, in the fifth set--a race to 15, winning by two, under the new rules.

That's when the Americans took a cue from the team on the other side of the net, and started digging deep.

The South Koreans don't have a player taller than 6 feet, but they are among the best in the world at keeping the ball from hitting the floor.

"It's total incentive. They're amazing," said Kerri Walsh, a former Stanford player whose digs helped keep the U.S. in the match.

"The thing I'll remember is her flying off the court to save a ball at 13-13. That made all the difference," said Coach Mick Haley, who will become the women's coach at USC after the Olympics. "When that happens, you just feel like you're supposed to win."

Walsh had another dig that was basically her flat palm between the ball and the floor.

"Defense is almost a dirty word in pro sports or any other sport, but that was the difference," Haley said.

It got so wild at one point that Walsh and Scott collided on the court as they scrambled to keep the ball alive before Tom put the point away.

"I went down twice," Scott said. "I don't know what happened. Same point. I barely got up and the ball was on top of my head again."

Walsh could only laugh afterward.

"Unfortunately that happens. I wasn't going to let the ball drop," she said. "She's OK. She's a big girl."

She and the rest of the volleyball team are on the verge of becoming a big deal after finally winning when Ku Min-Jung hit a ball that just missed out of bounds, sparking a wild U.S. celebration and dejection on the part of the Koreans.

"We were down in the fifth game. That's why the emotions came out at the end," Walsh said. "We made some amazing defensive plays. That's what it takes to win. We were so amazed. And it's awesome."

So is Tom.

She had 21 kills against the South Koreans, and she did it spectacularly.

"If she keeps this up the next couple of years, she's going to be the top player," Cross-Battle said. "In the world."

Haley wasn't disputing her.

"You expect younger players to get all jittery," he said. "She didn't do that tonight. She got better as the match went along. That was the best part.

"That was just a major league performance. For a 19-year-old to be out here, I thought that was just sensational."

Compared to what people expected, so is this team.

"The team has been through so much," Walsh said.

"Like Mick said, at the beginning of this quadrennial they started trying to get only eight points against each team, and that would be an accomplishment. And look where we are now. No one really has had faith in us in the United States except for the team members and their families."

One more victory, and they'll really have something to show for it.

"I'm seeing medals," Tom said. "I don't know. We'll find out."

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