August 12, 2003 - SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – The wait is almost over for the U.S. men’s national volleyball team at the XIV Pan American Games.
Nearly six days after playing in its last match, Team USA finally takes to the court on Wednesday for its semifinal showdown against Cuba at the Pabellon de Voleibol at Olympic Park.
While the match will determine which team will play for Pan American Gold on Friday, Team USA head coach Doug Beal hopes that the experience will pay dividends for his team next month at the NORCECA Zone Championship in Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico (Sept. 23-28).
“Certainly one of the things we wanted to do by bringing our team here was to have an opportunity to see Cuba, and hopefully, play a match against them,” admitted Beal. “We haven’t seen them for two years, and their team is dramatically different than the last time we saw them. We’ve really never seen this team in person. So by coming to the Pan American Games we have been able to accomplish that goal.
“I am really looking forward to the match to see how we play against Cuba and to get familiar with them because the competition in Mexico at the zones is certainly the most important event for us this year.”
The NORCECA Championship is crucial because it serves as a qualifier to the first Olympic qualifier, the World Cup, which is scheduled for Nov. 16-30 in Japan. The top three teams at the World Cup automatically qualify for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
Since the first NORCECA Championship in 1969 (the tournament is held every other year in odd-numbered years), Cuba has won 13 out of 17 times. The United States has won the remaining four championships (1973, 1983, 1985 and 1999) and has finished second eight times.
By finishing Pan American Games pool play with a perfect 3-0 record following a 3-2 win over Venezuela on Aug. 7, Team USA clinched the No. 1 seed in its pool and earned an automatic berth in the semifinals.
But the semifinals for the men were not scheduled to begin until Aug. 13, which meant that the United States would be out of competition for a full five days.
“It’s kind of a mixed bag,” said Beal of the unusually long break. “We’ve used the days to get a couple of guys a little bit healthier, physically, so that’s been OK. But it’s very unusual for us to have five days in between matches. I can’t think of another event that we’ve ever played in where we have had that long of a break.”
Thursday’s match will feature a showdown between two of the tournament top three scorers following pool play, Cuba’s Tomas Aldazabal (No. 1 with 54 points) and USA’s Brook Billings (No. 3 with 44 points).
The other semifinal sees Brazil take on Venezuela.