Way behind in the first set Saturday against France, the Americans slowly began chipping away to end up on top. While none of the U.S. players can quite explain it, they have a propensity for doing that very thing, coming back with the odds stacked against them.
That’s been no more evident than on the Olympic stage in Rio de Janeiro, where they have won two straight following a pair of unimpressive defeats.
“We just trusted each other, played our volleyball, played how we play,” Former Penn State standout Matt Anderson said.
Seemingly down and out in these Olympics only a few days ago, the U.S. men’s volleyball team is suddenly right back in the mix of the Rio Games. Even U.S. coach John Speraw acknowledged he had doubts about the Americans’ fortunes.
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“All of a sudden you lose that first match and you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t think, at some moment when you’re sitting alone in your room, ‘Uh oh,’ ” Speraw said. “I think we probably all did, but then you just take a deep breath and you go to work, and I think this team has done a really great job with resilience.”
Fresh off Thursday night’s stunning four-set victory against host Brazil, the Americans rallied to beat France 25-22, 25-22, 14-25, 25-22 and improve their position in Pool A. Next up is Mexico on Monday in the final preliminary match before the knockout quarterfinals. Mexico’s Carlos Guerra and assistant coach Ivan Contreras are both former Penn State players.
Anderson and fellow Penn State product Aaron Russell each finished with 18 points to lead the U.S. team. Russell recorded a team-high 15 kills, Anderson added 14 kills and former Penn State standout Max Holt had three kills for the Americans, who overcame a 17-9 deficit in the first set.
“We knew that we had to win these or else we’d pretty much be out,” Russell said. “We just kind of stayed strong together, bonded together and were able to come up with some big wins. There is no choice.”
They might have heard the message four times the past couple of days after a thrilling win against the Brazilians.
New day. Next one. Do it again.
“This tournament is an emotional rollercoaster ride,” Speraw said.
After being swept in their Olympic opener by Canada and then losing to Italy, the Americans (2-2) found their groove against Brazil and carried that into Saturday. This young group, with eight first-time Olympians and a trio of veterans leading the charge, has shined during this four-year cycle leading up to Rio when under the most pressure.
It was difficult not to think about leaving Brazil far too early, without at least a chance at the big prize.
“It’s playing for each other, not for yourself, not just for your team, not just for your coaches, for your country,” Anderson said.