Japan launched its final qualifying campaign for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics with a straight sets victory over Peru on Saturday.
Japan, bronze medalist in London four years ago, overcame a close first set to win 25-23, 25-10, 25-14 against world No. 21 Peru. Miyu Nagaoka led the way for manager Masayoshi Manabe’s squad with 20 points.
Japan captain Saori Kimura had 13 points, including three blocks. Angela Leyva scored 12 points for Peru.
Manabe gave Nagaoka glowing reviews.
“Nagaoka was outstanding today,” Manabe said of the 24-year-old spiker. “To be able to have the performance she turned in today is a reflection of her determination in playing for the national side.
“We served well and defended well, which is something we’ve been working on. I hope we can keep this up tomorrow. There’s a lot of pressure on them as it is the final qualifying, but I told them to believe in themselves and be aggressive.”
Nagaoka tried to play down her individual contribution, saying the win was the result of a team effort.
“We had to ride out spells of pressure in the first set, but I think getting through that allowed us to win in the end,” said Nagaoka, who nailed more than 53 percent of her shot attempts.
“When the match was close, I just focused on the point at hand. My teammates encouraged me to be aggressive and supported me, which allowed me to play the way I did.
“I’m glad to get the first win out of the way. We’ve been working hard toward our goal of winning a gold in Rio.”
The two teams met for the second time in an Olympic qualifier, with Japan winning the most recent matchup in straight sets at last year’s World Cup.
Japan is eyeing a record 12th Olympic appearance, a mark it would share with the United States, while Peru hopes to return to the Games for the first time since 2000.
The highest finisher from Asia in the eight-team round-robin competition qualifies automatically, along with the top three teams overall.
Japan was made to work in the opening set, allowing Peru its first lead of the match at 18-17 behind Alexandra Munoz’s service ace.
But after Japan equalized 19-19, Nagaoka restored its lead with a big block and put the host team up 21-19 with one of her 10 spikes in the set.
Peru, though, would not go away, fending off two set points from 24-21 to deny Japan the joy. Yet, Nagaoka stepped up again, capitalizing on a third set point to finish the frame with 11 points.
The visitors grabbed a 2-1 lead to start the second set, but Japan quickly turned things around behind Nagaoka and Kimura. Japan never looked back after moving in front 4-2 through another spike by Nagaoka, breezing to win the set.
The momentum spilled over into the final set for Japan, which never fell behind before Kimura converted match point to close out the contest.
Japan on Sunday plays Kazakhstan, the lowest ranked team in the field at No. 26, which lost 3-1 (25-12, 21-25, 25-14, 25-8) to the Netherlands in their opener.
Earlier, Thailand stunned world No. 7 Dominican Republic 3-1 (26-24, 26-28, 25-16, 25-20) behind 18 points and 17 points by Kongyot Ajcharaporn and Sittirak Onuma, respectively.
Thailand, ranked 13th, is looking to qualify for its first Olympics.
Italy started the day with a 3-1 (25-17, 25-20, 25-27, 25-18) win over South Korea.