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U.S. Finds Out Who's Not No. 1

Top-ranked women's volleyball team loses preliminary-round opener to China, which may be favorite for gold.

August 15, 2004|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — The U.S. women's volleyball team went into its Olympic opener Saturday night ranked as the best in the world.

Turned out, it wasn't even the best team on the court. China won the best-of-five match in four games, 25-21, 23-25, 25-22, 25-18.

Still, there was no shame there, considering the Chinese women had held the top spot until the U.S. took it over last month, based on its performance in the World Grand Prix. Looking at the long faces of the U.S. players, though, it was clear there was little solace to be found in the quality of the opposition.

"We are disappointed," Stacy Sykora said. "They were No. 1, so obviously they had been the best team in the world, but we made a lot of errors. USA volleyball beat USA volleyball. The Olympics is where you show everything you've got, so whether you are playing No. 1 or No. 20, your opponent can be tough."

Said Coach Toshi Yoshida: "I know my players are very disappointed, but they have to be positive."

One player, Logan Tom, was more than positive. She was downright pleased, initially, when she saw the draw in this preliminary round had matched probably the two best teams in the tournament.

"I like that," she said. "Playing a top team gets you going. But we weren't ready to go."

Making the result harder for the U.S. women to stomach, the Chinese played without one of their starters, Zhao Ruirui, who suffered a stress fracture of her right leg on the third point of the game.

The statistics clearly showed the difference. The Chinese had 61 kills to 48 for the U.S., and 32 digs to 21 for the Americans. Yang Hao with 19 and Zhang Ping with 14 were the kill leaders for China. The U.S. was led by Tom's 10. Zhang Na with nine and Zhou Suhong with eight had the most digs for the Chinese. Sykora led her team with eight.

The game was played in front of a sparse crowd with Peace and Friendship Stadium about one-quarter full. And about half of that group was a vocal Chinese contingent.

The American squad had come to Athens with realistic dreams of winning Olympic gold for the first time, based on its high ranking and its recent success against China. After having lost seven straight to China in the last two years, the U.S. had beaten the Chinese in two of three meetings this year.

The U.S. has won medals twice in the 40 years this sport has been in the Olympics, silver in 1984 and bronze in 1992. The U.S. was seventh in the 1996 Games and fourth four years ago in Sydney.

Now, American hopes have been reduced to trying to advance out of the preliminary round. Next up in the six-team group for the U.S. is Germany on Monday night. Three of the six teams will advance.

"We can't change much," said Tom. "We've only got two weeks."

To change, of course, would require knowing what went wrong Saturday night.

"I wish I knew," Tom said. "I wish I knew."

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