[Editor’s note: Off the Block is partnering with Ball State at the Games to provide the volleyball community with in-depth coverage of the U.S. Men’s National Team as it competes for an Olympic gold medal.]
Robby General | Ball State at the Games
DALLAS — If it wasn’t clear prior to the match who the crowd was rooting for at the FIVB World League stop in Dallas, it was after the national anthem echoed within the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.
The same audience that made only sporadic noise during the first match between Australia and Russia erupted after seeing the U.S. Men’s National Team step onto the court.
It was a special moment for players like outside attacker Taylor Sander.
“There was a bit of nerves because we’re back at home, and we got a lot of family and friends,” Sander said. “It means a lot to us. We don’t get to do that too often so it’s nice to be back in the U.S. and having the support and seeing a lot of old faces.”
The 7,250 fans were the second-highest attendance the United States (6-1, 17 points) have played in front of all season, but the team’s jitters settled after the first set as they went on to beat Bulgaria (0-7, 0 points) in four sets.
Prior to the match, the team took part in the Olympic Day festivities around the convention center.
Along with the six World League matches taking place this weekend, the convention center is playing host to the USA Volleyball Boys’ Junior National Championships, USA Boxing Junior Olympic, Prep National and Youth Western Championships, along with USA Fencing National Championships and July Challenge.
The location made for high attendance at Friday’s match, but U.S. coach John Speraw said he wondered if it also caused a lack of focus for his team before the match.
“The guys were walking back and forth doing nothing but autographs the whole time,” Speraw said jokingly. “I wonder if having all the family that’s here and having the huge crowd. … I wonder if this environment was just a little distracting too.”
Still, Speraw said he credited his team for coming up with big plays throughout the match.
“There were times during the match where we increased our focus just enough to make a play to get back into a side-out rhythm and score a couple points,” Speraw said. “We just need to be able to bring that intensity and focus on the very first time that happens. We responded really well to the punch, but it would sure be nice to avoid the punch in the first place.”
Throughout the night, no one stepped up quite like the man who has been in that situation time and time again – four-time Olympian outside attacker Reid Priddy.
“Our biggest difference was Reid Priddy,” middle attacker David Lee. “I mean our oldest veteran player is kind of stealing the show for our young guys. The guy is 38 and he’s playing like he’s 28, really impressive performance and I think he was the man of the match tonight.”
Lee finished third on the team in terms of points with 13, behind opposite Matt Anderson (15) and Sander (16). While Priddy didn’t register a kill until the third set, he managed to step up when it was needed most.
His substitution for outside attacker Thomas Jaeschke in the second set was enough to liven up the crowd. He earned more cheers in the third set after solo-blocking Bulgaria’s leading scorer Sokolov Tsvetan and following it up with a kill that brought the U.S. Men within one point.
He was just happy to be out there.
“Anytime you get to play it feels good and you know this is a good team we’ve got so many weapons,” Priddy said. “John [Speraw] has so many different choices and so I was just happy to contribute. Even though I wasn’t great in some area that I would usually contribute in, I was able to make it up in other areas.”
The United States will continue its home matches this weekend with matches against Australia (0-7) at 7:30 p.m. today. and Russia (4-3) at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday.
With its victory against Bulgaria, the United States ended Friday tied with both Serbia and Brazil for first-place in Group 1 of the FIVB World League. The United States can clinch a berth to the to the World League Finals if it wins one of its two remaining matches this weekend.
The top five teams and the host-nation Poland will advance to finals on July 13-17 in Krakow, Poland.
Ball State at the Games is a journalism class at Ball State University that will have students gain real-world experience by traveling to Rio de Janeiro to cover the Olympics on-site. This will be the third Olympics that Ball State at the Games will cover, but it is the first games that the class’ primary focus will be covering volleyball.