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Russia-U.S. volleyball rivalry alive

Ask Reid Priddy to pick a rival for the U.S. men's volleyball team, and the veteran outside hitter doesn't hesitate to answer.

Without question, he says, the Americans like to play Russia.

"Russia is a very good team that we respect and see a lot," Priddy said. "We're two teams that love to compete hard against each other. The games are always good."

So good, many players who were on the U.S. Olympic team that won gold in 2008 in Beijing say the thrill of defeating Russia leading up the final was nearly as memorable as taking the medal stand.

Such a statement could easily be taken as hyperbole. But remember, when members of Team USA aren't training or playing for their country, many of them play in Russian professional leagues.

Often times, they end up on the same squad as their Russian counterparts. That familiarity only boosts the rivalry.

"Most people in the world love beating us," said setter Kevin Hansen. "But Russia especially does. We've played each other in almost every Olympics. The last Olympics we beat them. It's always a big win either way."

The two sides face off again on Friday and Saturday at Koch Arena. The Russians swept the Americans in their first two matches of World League pool play, but those games were played in Russia.

In Wichita, the Americans hope to have a nice home-crowd advantage, and an added sense of urgency. Russia comes into the games with a 9-1 record and 26 tournament points. The Americans are 7-3 with 20 points. Russia has already clinched the group with that differential, but the United States still has a lot to play for.

If the Americans can take both matches from Russia, they will have a chance at advancing to the tournament's final round as an at-large team. If they win convincingly, their chances improve. For once, style points matter.

"It's a perfect setup for our guys," coach Alan Knipe said. "Russia is a tremendous team, and it will be a tall order. But we're going to be devoted to the matches, and understand that each point, each set and each match could give us the opportunity to advance to a World League Final."

If not, the Americans will at least have the thrill of playing a rival.

"Even if there was nothing on the line, these would be a great couples matches," Priddy said. "But we're hoping for the best. With a few wins we'll put ourselves in position to qualify. It should be an exciting finish."