RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (Aug. 17, 2018) – Wiping away memories of four years ago in London with the enthusiasm of youth, the U.S. Men’s National Team beat Poland, 25-23, 25-22, 25-20 on Wednesday in the Olympic quarterfinals at the Maracanazinho stadium.
The U.S. Men (4-2) will play the winner of the match between Iran and Italy in the semifinals at noon EDT on Friday (Aug. 19).
If the U.S. Men play Italy in the semifinals, it will be a rematch with the team that beat the U.S. 3-1 in pool play and also beat it 3-0 in the quarterfinals of the 2012 Olympics in London. The victory also makes the United States the only country with a team in both the Olympic men’s and women’s semifinals.
Only four players on the current U.S. Men’s roster were on the 2012 team that won its pool, but then suffered a surprising 3-0 loss to Italy in the quarterfinals and finished tied for fifth. But the youngsters who have been powering the team throughout the quadrennial came through again on Wednesday with their fourth straight win after losing the first two matches of the Olympic Games.
“I had a hunch that if this team, as young as they are as inexperienced they are… if we were going to reach our very best it was going to take some adversity within this tournament,” U.S. Head Coach John Speraw said. “Sometimes I feel like there are matches where you have seasons worth of lessons in one month. I think this tournament is kind of like that.”
Speraw was thrilled with the way his team battled on the floor.
“I think the guys are passing the ball really, really well, and that is probably our biggest improvement since last summer,” Speraw said. “Guys are playing great and playing with incredible fight and energy. I am beyond ecstatic that we are in a position to play for a medal.”
The U.S. countered Poland’s hard hitting and serving with steady passing under pressure.
“They are a really tough-serving team. They have a lot of variety and a lot of power,” Libero Erik Shoji, a first-time Olympian, said of Poland. “Just the way we stuck together was incredible. It builds confidence when you don’t pass it perfectly and we still sideout.”
Outside hitter Aaron Russell, the second youngest player on the team, led all scorers with 15 points on a match-high 12 kills, two blocks and one ace. Outside hitter Taylor Sander and opposite Matt Anderson each added 11 points. Anderson and Team Captain David Lee are the only players among the seven starters that competed in London.
The U.S. turned up the heat at the net as well, with five blocks as compared to Poland’s two. Poland opposite Bartosz Kurek, who came into the match leading all players in scoring, was held to 11 points and no other player scored in double figures for Poland.
U.S. setter Micah Christenson, another first-time Olympian, praised the way the U.S. Men have pulled together and are going all-out on every play.
“It gives me goosebumps just talking about it and thinking about it,” he said. “Those are the plays that we are all making for each other. We are sacrificing everything we have for each other. That’s really evident in our play… Even if we lose that point, we are making a statement that we’re going to give everything that we possibly have.”
The U.S. Men have played in the Olympic Games 10 times and have qualified for the semifinals five times. Four out of the five semifinal visits have resulted in medals.
The first set stayed close until the score was tied 16-16. Poland served out of bounds and the U.S. followed with a Russell kill of an overpass to put the U.S. ahead 18-16. Later, a kill from Anderson and a block by David Lee would put the U.S. ahead by three. The U.S. reached set point at 24-20 when Poland’s attack went out of bounds. The U.S. appeared to win the next point when Poland hit another ball out of bounds, but Poland’s challenge uncovered a U.S. net touch to make it 24-21. Poland followed with an ace and a kill to pull within one at 24-23. But Russell’s kill from the back row won it for the U.S.
Poland came out tough in the second set and built a lead of 18-13. The U.S. comeback started with an Anderson kill followed by Poland’s hitting error and Max Holt’s kill of an overpass to pull the U.S. to within two at 18-16. Poland’s Kurek scored on a kill, but Holt responded with another kill, Russell added a block and Sander scored on two straight aces to give the U.S. Men the first lead of the set at 20-19. With the score tied 22-22, Russell scored on a kill and Poland had an error to give the U.S. set point. Poland’s Michal Kubiak appeared to kill the next ball, but the U.S. challenged the play for a net touch and were successful giving it a 25-23 win.
The third set saw the U.S. build a gradual lead, going up three at 9-6 and increasing it to five at 16-1 and to six at 19-13 before rolling to victory.
U.S. Starters vs Poland
Outside hitters: Taylor Sander and Aaron Russell
Middle blockers: Max Holt and David Lee
Opposite: Matt Anderson
Setter: Micah Christenson
Libero: Erik Shoji
U.S. Statistics vs Poland
Kills: Aaron Russell 12, Taylor Sander 9, Matt Anderson 9, Max Holt 6, David Lee 2, Micah Christenson 1
Blocks: Lee 2, Russell 2, Anderson 1
Aces: Sander 2, Anderson 1, Russell 1, Christenson 1, Holt 1
Digs: Erik Shoji 2, Anderson 2, Holt 1, Sander 1