U.S. volleyball hopes to rediscover its game in Wichita

07/08/2010 12:00 AM

07/08/2010 12:51 AM

The United States men's volleyball team comes to Wichita this week in a state of transition.

Two years ago, its players and coaches celebrated the pinnacle of their careers by winning a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics. Today, they are working to again achieve that lofty goal, but with a different set of faces.

Eight players who were part of the Beijing games remain on the roster, but things have definitely changed. The coaching staff has completely turned over, and Alan Knipe is now running the show. Several new players are being asked to take over for veterans who have moved on with their lives, which means new personalities, playing styles and team chemistry.

Dealing with those changes, and the pressure of trying to follow up a best-in-the-world performance, has not been easy for the Americans.

"All things added up, the transitioning has been a difficult challenge," said Reid Priddy, a team captain who played in Beijing. "Coming off a gold-medal win, you want to keep it going and keep winning every time out, but it's hard. We recognize that the work ahead of us is just going to take time. But we're looking forward to training together and getting back to the top."

Hopefully, that training won't begin until the end of the month. Right now, the Americans want to keep playing in the World League.

Whether they get that opportunity depends on how they perform in Wichita. As they prepare for their final two matches of World League pool play against Russia on Friday and Saturday at Koch Arena, they are in need of some magic to reach the tournament's final round.

Russia (9-1), which swept the U.S. (7-3) in their first two matches, holds all tiebreakers and has already clinched the group. But if the Americans can return the favor and convincingly take two matches from their rivals, they could advance with an at-large bid.

Setter Tyler Hildebrand wants to keep going.

"It's not like we're struggling or anything," Hildebrand said. "People will look at our record and say we went from being the best team in the world to struggling to beat Egypt, but we're close to putting it all together. The team has played well at times, we just need to find an identity."

That, perhaps, has been the most difficult search of all. Team USA had hoped to be in control of its own destiny at this point, but a string of odd circumstances has held the squad back. A rash of injuries stopped key players from taking the court in important matches, and personal matters have prevented some veterans from making long road trips to Finland and Egypt.

Knipe, and Priddy, who missed the trip to Egypt because his is pregnant, compare the situation to playing with a new team every match.

"It's been difficult to be a cohesive unit," Knipe said. "We've had so many interchangeable parts coming and going so often. It's not what you want, but it's out of our hands. There's no lack of commitment from the guys to team, things have just kept them away."

But players believe the potential is still there.

"Once we start playing at the level we're capable," said setter Kevin Hansen, "we can beat anyone in the world."

Can the Americans play to their top form against the Russians? Or do they need more practice time to get back to their 2008 form?

Knipe can't say. But he knows his team is looking forward to Wichita.

"We've got two matches to play that have a great deal of meaning to us," Knipe said. "There's not a person involved with our team who isn't excited."

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