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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, August 19, 2004

USA upset by Olympic rookies in volleyball

By Dave Campbell
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece — After losing to the Dominican Republic just once in 25 previous meetings, the United States didn't expect any problems beating the first-time Olympians.

The Dominican Republic's Annerys Vargas Valdez spikes the ball past former Hawai'i standout Heather Bown, left, and Logan Tom.

Associated Press

But a sluggish start by the Americans, some Dominican determination and, of course, the rally-scoring system — volleyball's great equalizer — all added up to a pretty big upset.

Milagros Cabral de la Cruz had the match-winning kill in the fifth set, giving the Dominican Republic a 26-24, 22-25, 27-25, 23-25, 19-17 victory yesterday.

"We just put ourselves in a very, very difficult situation," U.S. coach Toshi Yoshida said.

Dropping to 1-2, the U.S. team faces sixth-place Russia tomorrow and fifth-place Cuba Sunday to close the first round of the tournament. The top four in the six-team pool advance.

The Americans could still make the medal round even by losing one of their next two matches, but they risk an undesirable quarterfinal matchup with Pool A leaders Brazil or Italy. The best bet, of course, would be winning the next two, making for a more favorable matchup and some needed momentum.

"We just have to take care of our team and hope that it will fall into place," reserve outside hitter Ogonna Nnamani said.

Tayyiba Haneef led the Americans with 20 points on 18 kills and two aces, and Logan Tom added 16 kills. Heather Bown, a University of Hawai'i alum, added eight kills, a block and an ace. Cabral de la Cruz scored 21 points, and Yudelkys Bautista had 15 kills and five blocks for the Dominicans.

In the fourth set, Tom's spike attempt glanced off Bautista's forearm and into the net to even the match at 2-2 after the Dominicans fended off set point three times.

Reaching match point twice in the fifth set, the Americans couldn't put it away. De la Cruz wound up and spiked the winner off a diving Nnamani.

"We are all very happy," Dominican libero Evelyn Carrera Pichardo said through a translator. "We played very aggressively, and we showed the people a wonderful match.

"We fought each point. We had faith until the end. ... We do not feel inferior toward any other teams."

The Dominicans earned a spot in the Athens Games by winning the South American qualifying tournament in January. They opened this tournament getting swept by Russia and China.

Though inexperienced, they're full of enthusiasm and built in the mold of the athletic Cubans, winners of the past three golds.

"It's just an example of how the Olympics is," Nnamani said. "Doesn't matter what team you are, or where you're from, or what you're about or what you've done in the past. It's all about right now."

Right now, the Americans' hopes for gold are shaken. Several players were visibly distraught as they left the Peace and Friendship Stadium court.

"We have to rebound, hope for the best and rise to the occasion," middle blocker Danielle Scott said.

A 9 a.m. start didn't help the Americans, whose previous two matches — and the next two — are all at night.

"The Dominicans have played in the morning all tournament and were probably a little more used to the hours," middle blocker Bown said. "We just came out a little flat, and you need the fire and you need the energy in every match when you're here because everybody is going after the USA.

"We have to go on the court with that attitude that we've got to defend everything we've got."

A kill by Haneef gave the U.S. team set point in the third, but the Dominicans staved that off twice and then won it on a blocking error by Haneef while trying to stop a spike by Kenia Moreta Perez.

"We had so many unforced errors," Yoshida said. "We knew that the Dominican Republic was strong. ... We knew that they could play like that."