U.S. women spikers off to surprising 2-0 start
SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- U.S. women's volleyball coach Mick Haley said his team was too young to notice the pressure, and maybe he's right.
The Americans were supposed to be at least another four years away from challenging for an Olympic medal, but now they're unbeaten after an improbable victory over China and an easy rout of Kenya.
"We're 2-0," smiled Stacy Sykora, tongue-pierced Dennis Rodman fan and the epitome of Yankee machismo, "and we've only begun."
Two days after overpowering China in four games, the U.S. team took just 55 minutes to dispatch Kenya, 25-16, 25-6, 25-16 on Monday.
It gets much more difficult from here for the Americans, who must win one more match to assure themselves a spot in the quarterfinals. Next up is Croatia, powered by its superb 6-foot-4 hitter, Barbara Jelic. She tallied 40 kills in Croatia's 3-1 victory over China on Monday to help her team go 2-0.
"The game with Croatia is going to be a donnybrook," Haley said. "No way we beat those girls easy. They're very good. But so are we."
The American men, coming off an upset loss to Argentina in the first round, face Russia on Tuesday (Monday night EDT) in a match between two former volleyball superpowers trying to regain their status.
All but two of the U.S. women got a chance to play against Kenya. Haley sat Kerri Walsh and 32-year-old Tara Cross-Battle, a starter. Cross-Battle's replacement, Demetria Sance, had a team-high 16 kills.
"It's really nice when you have an opportunity to get everyone a chance to play, because we have a lot of good talent on the team, and sometimes it's not displayed," said Danielle Scott, who had six kills in light duty.
The Kenyans, by far the weakest of the 12 teams in the field, have been beaten by a combined score of 150-70 in their two straight-sets defeats. But they gave the U.S. team exactly what it needed, which was a few minutes' worth of hard work.
The Americans struggled to a 10-8 lead, then ran off four straight points behind Logan Tom's sinking jump serve. Kenya trailed 22-10 before rallying, and its high point was a rigid stuff by Edna Chepngeno and Judith Serenge on a hit by Tom. That cut it to 24-16, but 6-foot-2 U.S. blocker Heather Bown drove home a shot for the set.
"I was glad they played, because they made some great saves, and they hit the ball hard," said U.S. coach Mick Haley. "We needed some of that, otherwise this could have been a real hard match for us to get out of and get ready for Croatia.
"We want to finish as high in this pool as possible. We don't want to make any mistakes."
In Monday's most anticipated match, top-ranked Russia survived a thrilling battle with two-time defending gold medalist Cuba, 20-25, 25-21, 21-25, 25-12, 15-13. Elsewhere in Group B, Italy defeated Peru 25-17, 25-20 and 25-20, while South Korea downed Germany 25-16, 25-21 and 25-22. Cuba and South Korea both are 2-0. Brazil won its second straight match in Group A by defeating Australia 25-13, 25-18 and 25-17.
After Croatia, the U.S. team plays Australia and Brazil to finish out Group A.
Sykora, the former Texas A&M star, settled into her position as the American libero. The position, new to these Olympics, is defense-only, and the player can't serve or spike at the front row. Sykora played the spot well, coming up with several diving saves.
She's one of the 10 Americans who are new to the Olympic experience, but for whom it doesn't seem to be an impediment.
"I think the young players are so young they really don't have any fear," Haley said before the games began. "I'm hoping the older players will keep them relaxed, and we can just go for it. We've got nothing to lose."
The two veterans -- Scott and Cross-Battle -- were businesslike Monday, but they could feel the youthful excitement building.
"This is so awesome," Scott said.