U.S. grinds out victory after pep talk

Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- U.S. men’s volleyball Coach Hugh McCutcheon won’t talk about the family tragedy that has forever marked his Olympic experience with sadness. It would be too hard for McCutcheon to speak over and over about the violent death of his father-in-law and injuries to his mother-in-law on Aug. 9, the day after the opening ceremony.

So when the U.S. advanced to the semifinals with a five-set, come-from-behind win over Serbia on Wednesday night and McCutcheon was asked about his emotions, he had a simple answer.

“Right now I’m happy that we won,” McCutcheon said. “When I’m at volleyball, all I’m thinking about is volleyball. I’m here trying to coach and trying to win. I’m trying to compartmentalize all other parts of my life right now.”

The 20-25, 25-23, 21-25, 25-18, 15-12 win advanced the U.S. to a Friday semifinal against Russia. Italy and Brazil will meet in the other semifinal.


Playing in a raucous Capital Gymnasium where the Serbian fans often booed the U.S., Riley Salmon said he and his teammates came out nervous.

Salmon said the Americans are aware of both the emotional significance winning would have for their coach and of the burden it would release from the tedium of hearing how the U.S. hasn’t won a medal since claiming bronze at the 1992 Olympics.

It was Salmon, the 6-foot-6 middle hitter, who got the winning spike and who set off an emotional celebration after the 2-hour, 14-minute match. And Salmon said the U.S. team didn’t mind the boos. “Most of us play in Europe a lot,” he said. “We’re used to it.”

With the match tied at a set each, the U.S. had lost a four-point lead and trailed 16-15 in the third when a timeout was called.


McCutcheon’s pep talk was calm but pointed.

“We want effort,” he said. “We’re right where want to be. We’re here.”

The U.S. had started slowly in the first set, falling behind right away and never catching up.

The second set was close throughout, but with the score 24-23 in favor of the U.S., 36-year-old Lloy Ball served, Reid Priddy spiked and the U.S. had tied the match at one set each with a 25-23 win.


The third set started in favor of the Americans, who took a quick 4-0 lead, but the advantage was gone for good when McCutcheon had his timeout talk and the U.S. fell behind, two sets to one, after a 25-21 loss.

Ball gave the next pep talk. “Don’t think too far ahead,” he said. “Just think point by point.” That worked in the fourth set, when Clayton Stanley served a winner to give the U.S. a 25-18 win and tie the match at two sets each.

And it worked in the fifth set when the U.S. front line began to dominate.

“It’s not often easy and not always pretty,” Ball said, “but the guys kept grinding, and we picked it up in the fourth and fifth sets. We picked up our blocking; it was a team effort.


“Once we settled down and played USA volleyball, it was OK.”