So much for 0-2, U.S. men’s volleyball into semis

​By Lisa Dillman
Los Angeles Times
From left, Maxwell Holt and Taylor Sander have given the Americans a boost in men's volleyball. After an 0-2 start, the U.S. is headed to the semifinals Friday.

Rio de Janeiro — The machine known as the U.S. men's volleyball team sputtered and unexpectedly hit a wall in the Olympic quarterfinals in 2012 in London and left without a medal.

Italy was its nemesis that day.

Friday, the U.S. will get the chance to atone for that shortcoming.

Actually, that simple narrative isn't the complete story, it's more complex.

The U.S. reached the semifinals at the Olympics with a ruthlessly efficient sweep over Poland, 25-23, 25-22, 25-20, on Wednesday at the historic Maracanzinho Arena, which is next door to Rio's famous soccer stadium, Maracana.

Italy had a more difficult time in its quarterfinal against Iran, winning 31-29, 25-19, 25-17. This will be the second meeting between the U.S. and Italy in Rio, with Italy winning the first match during pool play.

The U.S. was floundering with consecutive losses to Canada and Italy and needed a mid-tournament course correction.

Since then, it hasn't lost in four matches, beating Brazil, France, Mexico and Poland.

"We're coming into matches much more aggressive," outside hitter Aaron Russell said. "You can see by the way that we're playing, we're going after balls and it's a lot more fun to play that way.

"I think the first match we were a little nervous. A lot of the players on our team, it was the first Olympic match. Against Italy, they played really well. You just didn't see the kind of heart that we have right now. We got together as a team, had some meetings and talked over what is expected of each one of us."

The rebuilt poise of the U.S. players came through when Poland built a five-point lead in the second set. They were able to finish off the set in dominating fashion, outscoring Poland, 12-4, down the stretch to take a two-set lead.

Even when Poland closed to three points late in the third set 23-20, there was no sense of panic and the U.S. advanced to the semifinals two points later. Since 2012, the U.S. is 6-4 against Poland.

"We've just been through so much in this tournament in a short amount of time," middle blocker Max Holt said. "We were fighting for our lives already after the second match. I just think it just speaks a lot to everybody.

"I don't know if any other team has been through what we've been through in such a short amount of time. The score in that second set was 18-13 – we were down – and we just looked at each other. Everybody looked into each other's eyes, 'We've got this.' "