DALLAS – In 2012, the U.S. men’s Olympic volleyball team had their medal run halted after a three-set loss against Italy in the quarterfinal’s.
The then-reigning gold medal champions finished fifth in London – a moment three-time Olympian David Lee has not forgotten.
“We came up short and I’ve been thinking about that loss since it happened,” Lee said. “I’m excited though, I want to be back on the podium, I want to win a medal again.”
Team USA took a big step on the road to once again achieving that goal after defeating the reigning gold medal Russian team 3-0 on Sunday.
With the win, the team advanced to 8-1 in FIVB Volleyball World League play and enter the finals for the third straight year, this time as the No. 2 seed.
The U.S. Men will see two familiar faces in Poland during their two-match Pool Play. Their first match is against Italy (6-3), the team who handed them a loss in the 2012 Olympic games, on July 14. They will return the following day to take on the only team that has beat them this summer – Brazil (8-1).
If they win finish top-two in that pool, they will advance to take on one of three other Olympic Medal Contenders: Serbia (7-2), France (6-3), and Poland (3-6).
Originally, the World League was supposed to prepare the U.S. men for Rio de Janeiro in August, but due to their success, those plans have changed.
“I don’t really think we were thinking about winning this tournament in pool play, it was more about how we can get better going into the Olympics,” Lee said. “Now our motivation is to win this tournament.”
This weekend’s World League stop in Dallas played host to Bulgaria, Australia and Russia. Team U.S.A. beat all three teams – with three different lineups.
Throughout the shortened World League season, head coach John Speraw has implemented a different lineup in nearly every match.
And for good reason.
“You never know when you’re going to have to go to some of the guys on your bench during the Olympic games,” Speraw said. “They need to play in big moments and this is as big of a moment as we can give Murphy (Troy) right now with a team as big as the Russians.”
Troy was just one of the players who started over the three-match weekend. During the home stand, every member of the final Olympic roster played.
Lee has been a part of the team for 12 years now and this is the deepest U.S. Men’s roster he has seen, saying it has “never been like this before.”
Besides libero Erik Shoji, setter Micah Christenson was the only player to see action in each of the three matches this past weekend. According to Christenson, depth is just one of the strengths that the U.S. Men have going into the Olympic Games.
“Our depth is one of our strengths and I think we all knew that coming in, we have so much confidence in every player that steps on the court,” Christenson said. “We’re a young team and we can rotate guys in. Having those fresh legs is a great advantage for us and we’re going to continue to have faith in those guys to come in and step up when we need them.”
Eight of the 12-man roster have never been to the Olympic games, and the four who have, Lee, Reid Priddy, David Smith and Matt Anderson, have shared their experience with their younger teammates.
Success has been no rarity for the U.S. Men this summer, but middle blocker Maxwell Holt knows that there’s progression to be made.
“To go 3-0 against the second ranked team, one of the best teams in the world is amazing, we’re ecstatic,” Holt said following the team’s win over Russia. “I think we know we still have a lot to improve on even with the win.”
The U.S. Men have made several statements in the past year.
They became the first team to qualify for the games, after host-team Brazil, following their 2015 World Cup Championship. And their 8-1 finish in the World League was good enough for a win percentage of .889, their personal best in their third-straight year qualifying for the FIVB volleyball World League Final Round.
While the success has been nice, after the finals wraps up in Poland on July 17, none of their previous accomplishments mean much going into the Olympics.
“Everyone knows the ultimate statement is going to be in Rio and when that tournament starts everybody is 0-0,” Speraw said. “For us to be able to (qualify) three years in a row. Put ourselves in a position to medal again.
“I’m really pleased with where we’re at as a program and how these guys are playing.”