LONDON - One of the most appealing aspects of Olympic volleyball is the fast, furious pace of the matches.
Japan vs. South Korea demonstrated these traits in the Olympic women’s volleyball bronze-medal match Saturday at Earls Court.
Coach Masayoshi Manabe’s team was stronger, more consistent in all aspects of the match and swept South Korea, 25-22, 26-24, 25-21.
With the hard-fought triumph, Japan collected its first women’s volleyball medal since earning the bronze at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Brazil and United States, meanwhile, were set to square off in the gold-medal match later in the day.
“Teamwork was the key to the victory,” Manabe said.
“I have tried many different things in the last 3½ years. I have trained them hard, too. But I think I could have given some pleasure to them by this victory.
“Today was the last day of this 3½ years. Of course we needed to think of (winning and losing), but I let them enjoy the last day.”
Japan won the offensive numbers games, making 121 spike attempts to South Korea’s 106 and, more important, outscoring its rival 53-38 in that department.
Saori Sakoda led Japan in both categories — 46 attempts, 23 for winners — and Risa Shinnabe contributed 11 kills while Saori Kimura had nine. Standout Kim Yeon Koung paced South Korea with 21 spikes on 36 attempts. Kim Hee Jin and Han Song Yi each had five apiece.
Japan played to its strengths throughout the match, relying on scrappy defense — digging the ball after the Koreans’ returns — instead of trying to force the issue at the net by blocking the ball. Japan, in fact, finished with zero blocks in the 1-hour, 23-minute match.
Veteran setter Yoshie Takeshita smiled when a reporter made the observation that Japan’s defense was sharp without attempting block after block.
That’s a “very Japanese style (of volleyball),” she said.
Yuko Sano made her mark digging the ball as Japan repeatedly got the ball to Takeshita to set up the attack.
Asked whether the success of the Japan volleyball team can lead to increased popularity for the sport, Takeshita responded by saying, “I know that other sports are charming and popular. I recognize that, but (for volleyball) to get more popular, we are doing our best.”
Takeshita epitomized Japan’s fighting spirit throughout the tournament, helping lead the team to its first triumph over China since 1991, when it won their Olympic quarterfinals match earlier in the week.
“Until now, I have been doing my best,” she said. “I believe I’ve been showing a strong effort.
“I have always thought about the team winning, even by sacrificing myself in a play. So I am glad that the team won this match.”
In Game 1, South Korea fell behind 4-0 at the start, twice drilling return shots long, prompting coach Kim Hyung Sil to call a timeout. The Koreans pulled back within 6-4, getting aggressive play at the net.
A block by Han Song Yi gave the Koreans a boost as they stayed two shots off the leaders at 7-5.
Kim Yeon Koung found her rhythm against Japan’s defense, finger-tipping a shot over and delivering a crushing blow on her next attack to tie Game 1 at 9-9. South Korea took its first lead of the match, 10-9, seconds later.
Japan stormed back, tying it at 12-12 on a Shinnabe spike before South Korea was back in front by one. But Kim Yeon Koung’s service error knotted it at 13-13.
“We had fear and nerves prior to the game,” said Sakoda. “However, we wanted to turn it into concentration and it worked. We worked very well together.”
Sakoda’s hustle and execution was impressive.
Or as Manabe put it: “She was absolutely the best. I am very satisfied with her performance today.”
Coach Kim agreed with his counterpart’s assessment.
“Sakoda has been playing really well since last year. She came on as a sub a few times. I believe she is a very good player and today her attacking was so hard to block,” he said.
Kim Yeon Koung, considered by some sports experts to be the top female athlete in the world, displayed her strength and speed to put South Korea up 16-15, perfectly timing a jump and spike to thwart the Japan defenders.
Sakoda returned the favor moments later, smacking the ball right at Kim Hae Ran for a kill and a 17-16 Japan advantage.
Kim Yeon Koung continued to guide the Korean play, pounding back-to-back spikes to level the score at 19-19. At that point, she had accounted for 10 of her team’s total points.
Sakoda brought Japan back in front 22-21 on a soft dink shot over the net.
Japan took Game 1 on its second set point, Sakoda notching a sharp attack for the team’s 18th point-producing spike of the game.
“This is my first Olympics. I wanted to put on a good performance to help contribute towards the team,” Sakoda said later.
In Game 2, Japan again opened proceedings with a 4-0 lead. Again, South Korea called a timeout to regroup.
Japan pushed the lead to 7-1 as Sakoda crushed a shot past that her opponent couldn’t return, and in the blink of an eye, the score stood at 8-1.
“We were really playing by putting a spirit into every single movement,” Takeshita said.
South Korea remained scrappy, though, clawing away and cut it to 10-5 as a Han Yoo Mi attack caught Japan off balance.
Trailing 14-8, South Korea got a much-needed point when Kim Yeon Koung blocked a shot on the frontline.
Another block, this one from Hang Song Yi pulled the Koreans within 16-13. And then it was 16-14 as Kim Yeon Koung unleashed a splendid spike that Japan failed to return.
Kim Yeon Koung, the top-scoring player in the tournament, stayed aggressive up front, spiking the ball past two blockers to make it 22-20, Japan.
Sakoda drilled a shot for a 24-21 lead.
Led by Kim Yeon Koung, South Korea rallied back to 24-24 and forced four set points before an attack error gave Japan the game and a 2-0 advantage. Coach Kim’s squad never led in Game 2.
South Korea didn’t start off as slowly in the third game, and led 6-4 after Kim Hee Jin’s back-to-back service points.
Japan trailed 8-7 at the first technical timeout.
It was 12-12 before Kim Hee Jin’s successful spike put the Koreans ahead by one.
Sakoda’s teammates kept feeding her the ball at the net and she delivered repeatedly, including a fast spike that put her country in the lead by a 15-14 margin. Sakoda has been an unheralded player for Japan, not getting the chance to appear in some games but her solid play in Japan’s final match (a team-high 23 points) helped the team secure the win.
Japan led 16-15 at the second technical timeout.
After Sakoda picked up her 21st spike of the match for a 20-19 advantage, Shinnabe put Japan two points shy of match point.
South Korea tried to force a fourth game, but fell shy of its goal, Araki and Sakoda scoring the final two points to close out the match.
Every shot contributed to the medal as Japan quickly shifted from offense to defense, back and forth, in smooth transition.
“We think that we all individually worked hard and believed in ourselves,” Takeshita said. “That made the difference today. It was not only the setting, we all played well.”
“The Olympic medal is the best moment of all,” she added.
Kim Yeon Koung said it was a significant accomplishment for South Korea to be in a position to compete for a medal for the first time in 32 years. She said she was disappointed in the team’s performance, but called it a “good lesson” for the team.
She didn’t appear as quick or energetic as she had during FIVB tournament play this year or in earlier Olympic matches, and admitted she was at about 90 percent, with her knee wrapped in a bandage and medical tape on her shoulder. “I was hurt, but not many players are in their (best condition) now,” she said.
“I believe that throughout the match Korea played at a high level,” she added. “There were some areas that we didn’t do well and some areas that we did. For those areas that we didn’t do well, we will try to improve on them to do better next time, and for the areas that we did well, we will continue to build on our strengths.”