Some people kick off summer with a big backyard barbeque, but the U.S. Men’s National Team ushered in the season by earning a berth in the FIVB World Championship, which begins Aug. 30 in Poland.
The U.S. didn’t lose a set in the NORCECA World Championship qualifier at Colorado Springs’ U.S. Olympic Training Center, emerging from the May 15-18 tournament with a perfect 4-0 mark.
Not content just to get to Poland, the U.S. is aiming high. “Medaling at the World Championships is a clear goal of ours,” U.S. head coach John Speraw said.
Libero Erik Shoji was a standout in the qualifier, taking home enough hardware to fill up the overhead bin on the flight back to Southern California. The Stanford product, in his second full season with the national team, was named tournament MVP, Best Libero, Best Digger, and Best Receiver.
After beating Guatemala (twice), Haiti, and St. Lucia in the NORCECA qualifier, the U.S. faced much stiffer competition as World League competition began.
The Americans’ first two WL matches were on the road, in Varna, Bulgaria, May 23-24. Games against Russia and Serbia would follow in weeks to come, in what middle blocker David Lee calls “one of the toughest pools in World League.”
Bulgaria has come close to a podium finish in World League in recent years, finishing fourth in both 2013 and 2012, when they also wound up fourth at the London Olympics.
Despite playing in front of a raucous crowd of nearly 6,000, the No. 4-ranked U.S. clawed their way to victory after being down two games to none to beat No. 6 Bulgaria in five sets. The win marked the first time the U.S. won its opening match in World League in six years.
“The way we played was really selfless volleyball,” said Matt Anderson, a starter on the 2012 Olympic team. “We played for each other and our team.”
Anderson, an experienced outside hitter, started at opposite and racked up 20 kills, two blocks, and a pair of aces. Having an opposite who can pass is rare, and it gives Speraw options most other national team coaches don’t have.
“When we put [Anderson] at opposite, that doesn’t mean that we’re not gonna have him step in and pass,” Speraw said, which creates “some unique flexibility with what you can do offensively, who you can pull out, who you can put in.” He added that it also allows them to “receive with four guys when you’re facing the high level jump serves that we see.”
It’s not Anderson’s first time playing opposite, and he says his move from outside hitter makes the U.S. more difficult to defend.
“It’s what our team needs right now, for me to be on the right, not only to get points out of our opposite, but also to spread our offense out more. With me on the right, it gives more opportunities for other players.”
Playing in his World League debut in the first match versus Bulgaria, Taylor Sander put down 15 kills, including a back row attack that gave the U.S. match point. The former BYU star also had three blocks and two aces.
The next night, Sander had 10 kills as the U.S. rallied to beat Bulgaria in four sets, while Anderson pounded a match-high 18 kills.
Veteran outside hitter Reid Priddy was also playing well, serving up a match-high three aces to go along with four blocks, adding to the three blocks and nine kills he tallied in the WL opener.
But Priddy got hurt in the fourth set of the second match against Bulgaria, landing awkwardly after a spike. After it happened, he fell to the floor and grabbed his right leg, just below the knee. “He was right at my feet when it happened,” Speraw said. “I could see his reaction and I knew it wasn’t good.”
It’s not the kind of injury Speraw, a former middle blocker at UCLA and head coach of the men’s program at his alma mater, has ever seen before.
“It’s the first time as a player or a coach that I’ve been around somebody who’s hurt their knee like that.”
Just a few days later, Priddy posted on his Facebook page that his summer with the national team was over, though he still had the Olympics in his sights.
“Regretfully, the 2014 season was cut short for me due to the awkward landing I made in Bulgaria Saturday night,” he wrote. “I will be having surgery next week on my knee and immediately begin aggressive rehab to get back to top shape and condition. The goal is still the same—going for GOLD in Rio and I will do everything in my power to recover fully and get back on the court. Thanks for all your messages of support.”
Appearing on The Net Live podcast on June 2, Priddy announced he’d injured his ACL.
Lee has played with Priddy both on the national team and with Novosibirsk in the Russian league. He’s confident that Priddy will make a full comeback.
“The way that guy works and just naturally the way he’s built, he’s a freak athlete and he works super hard. I don’t think there’s any doubt that he’ll be back playing again.”
After their sweep of Bulgaria in Europe, the U.S. men flew back to California for a pair of matches against world No. 2 Russia, June 6 and 7. Both matches were played at Walter Pyramid, home of the Long Beach State volleyball and basketball teams.
“We were looking for people to step up and perform and cover the loss of Reid Priddy,” Speraw said. “And I think we did that really well as a team.”
The defending Olympic and World League champion Russia rested some players after the long pro season and arrived in Long Beach having dropped its first two WL matches to No. 9 Serbia.
Two of Russia’s top players, 2012 Olympic gold medalists Maxim Mikhaylov and 7'2" Dmitriy Muserskiy, were not on the roster for the matches at the Pyramid.
The U.S. won the first two sets, but barely held off a comeback by Russia to take the first match in five sets.
Anderson had a match-high 31 kills; Sander added 18 kills. Through his first four WL matches, Sander did not play like a World League rookie. The accomplishments of the 2014 VBM and AVCA Player of the Year did not go unnoticed by the national team staff.
“I think he reads the game really well,” said Speraw. “He physically is able to match up with a lot of the elite-level players in the world.”
Before the second match with Russia, hundreds of fans turned out for “Vol-B-Que III,” a volleyball-themed tailgating event organized by USA superfan Matt Garthoff.
The tailgaters then headed inside, where the U.S. swept Russia 3-0 in front of a sold out arena of 5,000, including a variety of volleyball celebrities from Karch Kiraly to Dave Shoji to Kristin Hildebrand.
“Our team effort has continued to improve,” Speraw said. “I’m really pleased with the fact that we’re 4-0, mostly because I think we’re just significantly better than we were at the same time last year.”
Pool play for World League wraps up with matches in Illinois, Serbia, and Russia. The U.S. will then play four matches against Iran in August in four Southern California locations before hitting the road again to play Germany. Then the season wraps up in Poland with the World Championship.
Originally published in August 2014