KYOTO – A strong U.S. men’s volleyball squad squad ran into a speed bump in the third set, but managed to defeat Japan, winning 3-1 (25-17, 25-17, 21-25, 25-20) in the teams’ FIVB Men’s Grand Champions Cup opener on Tuesday.
Leading the victorious USA in scoring was player of the match Matthew Anderson with 21 points. He was supported by middle blocker Maxwell Holt, whose 18 points including a remarkable eight blocks. The USA outblocked Japan 17-7 in the match. For the home team, it was Tatsuya Fukuzawa leading the way with 12 points.
“We’re very excited to get the win tonight,” USA coach John Speraw said at Kyoto Prefectural Gymnasium. “We had the opportunity to compete twice against Japan before the tournament started, and they beat us both times, playing great volleyball.
Early in this match we played really well, utilized our size, we blocked at the net well, used our strengths, I think we passed better than they did.
“I was not surprised that the beginning of the third set went the way that it did. That was the team we played in scrimmages. They have improved dramatically since World League. I though Max Holt had a really nice match, and Matt Anderson played well from the service line.”
The USA got the block party going right out of the gate, with David Lee and William Priddy frustrating Kunihiro Shimizu on three consecutive points to go up 8-3. A powerful Jeffrey Menzel spike down center put the USA in total control at 17-8, and despite some excitement off the bench from Yusuke Ishijima, the host side couldn’t get much rolling. Anderson pitched in two hard spikes to put his side ahead 21-12, and from there Priddy closed it out with a cross-court smash, 25-18, taking the first set.
Said U.S. captain Sean Rooney: “It’s great to be in Japan to start this tournament. We’re excited to be here, playing in Japan against Japan is an awesome experience. We had fun tonight. And now on with the tournament. [...] Today we started with a win, and that’s important in a tournament like this with only five games. We have good a relationship with Japan, they played good defense. We knew they’d be fired up after the break. We’re disappointed with the third set, but tactically we played well in the fourth, and we’re glad to get out of here with a win.”
The USA carried its momentum into the second set, posting seven uninterrupted points until a Shimizu spike made it 7-1. The Kyoto fans lent their support with chants of “Gori! Gori!” a reference to the southpaw’s famously long arms. This seemed to briefly energize the home team in the middle of the set, as Tatsuya Fukuzawa and Yuta Yoneyama found some daylight between the USA block to make it 15-8. But the USA lead proved insurmountable, as Holt helped close the set with a stunning block stuff on a flying Fukuzawa to make it 23-16, and then a hard kill to finish it 25-17.
To the delight of the home crowd, Japan did get out in front of the USA in the third set, sparked by an enthusiastic Kazuyoshi Yokota who delivered some smart play at the net, helping his team ahead 10-5. One of the highlights of the set came when Shigeru Kondo posted a block on an attacking Priddy to make it 15-11, but Priddy — no stranger to the highlight reel himself — fired right back, unfazed, on the next point for a kill. Japan was fortunate late in the set, withstanding an offensive onslaught from Matt Anderson, whose four points brought the USA within two at 23-21. But Fukuzawa would shut him down on set point, with a block stuff to take the set 25-21.
Fukuzawa put his side up 2-0 with an ace to start the fourth set, but Holt responded for the USA with more spectacular blocking, posting his sixth and seventh block stuffs consecutively to go ahead 4-2. He’d put his eight on a frustrated Gottsu to make it 13-9, but Koshikawa brought Japan back to within one with an ace and a spike, 17-16. But Micah Christenson’s third block of the match, on Gottsu, put the USA ahead 20-17, and from there they would close it out on an Anderson score, 25-20.
Japan coach Gary Sato, “I was disappointed in our start, I think we’re capable of playing better than that. However, I think you saw some instances in the third and fourth set where we played the kind of volleyball we need to play to be successful.”
He added: “We have to give credit to the USA team, they have some members who are Olympic gold medalists, and they know how to rise to the occasion and bring their teammates along. However all our future opponents are the best teams in the world, so things will not get easier than this. We will have to play better.”
Asked about playing Brazil on Wednesday, Sato responded by saying, “I’d like to say we can play them like Italy (who beat them today), but we’ll have to go home and watch the film, and see if there are some ways we can attack and counter attack them. But most importantly, we have to play to a certain level of excellence, consistent with how we played in the third set today.”