U.S. falls in four to Italy

Updated: August 15, 2004, 6:40 PM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- The U.S. men's volleyball team sees itself as being in a much better position to medal in Athens than four years ago during a miserable performance in Sydney.

But that's not to say success will be easy. The field is stacked, as the Americans found out Sunday when Italy beat them in four sets to begin the preliminary competition.

"It tells me we can play with this team," said opposite Clay Stanley, who led all scorers with 21 points. "We can play with any team. We've played with all of them. We've beaten all of them."

Matej Cernic had seven of his 18 kills in the third set to give his team a 2-1 edge, and the Italians rallied to take the last four points of the final set -- taking advantage of some late U.S. sloppiness.

A wicked jump serve on match point by Andrea Sartoretti put the Americans on their heels, and Reid Priddy's kill went wide to end it at 25-21, 21-25, 25-17, 25-23.

The loss was the ninth straight, including an 0-5 match record in Sydney, for the U.S. in Olympic play.

The U.S. played with plenty of energy. Lloy Ball, the captain, setter and three-time Olympian, let out a celebratory scream after nearly every point -- stretching his long arms out to embrace teammates in the ritual huddle between serves.

Italy, an equally enthusiastic bunch cheered on by a healthy contingent of fans, didn't leave quietly. Starter Valerio Vermiglio and Ball were yelling at each other after the teams shook hands.

Ball, who plays professionally in Italy, chalked up the brief exchange to typical post-match emotions.

"If they want to talk, I'll talk," Ball said.

After falling behind by as many as seven points in the opening set, the U.S. squad made the score respectable and carried momentum into the next set. Riley Salmon, a reserve outside hitter from Texas, converted a kill on game point to tie the match.

Though still looking for that first Olympic gold, Italy has clearly established itself as an international power -- winning six of the last seven against the U.S., including a three-set victory at the World Cup last year.

Italian coach Gian Paolo Montali, whose team returns six players from the group that won a bronze medal in 2000, was impressed by the latest meeting with the Americans.

"I think they have such an intense way," Montali said. "They can get good results."

The U.S. is fifth in the latest international federation rankings, but even a healthier, more determined squad will have a tough time escaping Pool B.

Top-ranked Brazil needed four sets to beat a scrappy Australia team earlier in the day, and the Netherlands -- who won gold in 1996 -- upset defending silver medalist Russia in a five-set thriller.

Four of the six advance to the quarterfinals.

"All the teams are good," said U.S. coach Doug Beal. "There is going to be lots of results that are going to be difficult to expect. There are no prohibitive favorites. We just have to play our best."

All three Pool A matches were sweeps. Poland stunned reigning Olympic champion Serbia and Montenegro, Argentina swept France, and host Greece -- in front of a loud crowd of 8,200 -- topped Tunisia.

The Americans play the Dutch on Tuesday. They'll be looking for better communication on defense and more consistency from their servers. The Italians had nine aces, five by Sartoretti.

"We got that first game out of the way," said Stanley, whose father, Jon, played on the 1968 team in Mexico City. "For a lot of us, it's our first Olympics."

Phil Eatherton, who grabbed the last spot on the 12-man roster in July, started at middle blocker in place of Ryan Millar -- who watched the first three sets from the sideline with a sore ankle.

That was an unsettling reminder of Sydney, when the United States played without a healthy body at that position and finished in 11th place.

"I played as hard as I could," Eatherton said. "For the first match back, he played all right."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press