September 16, 2003 - COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - The most important tournament of the year for the USA men's national Volleyball team begins next week in Mexico.
The men's NORCECA Zone Championship is scheduled for Sept. 25-30 in Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico. The eight teams vying for the men's NORCECA crown include: Canada, Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico and the United States.
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.
The top two teams at the NORCECA championship earn a winter trip to Japan and a shot at qualifying for the Olympics a full nine months before the Games begin.
The men have not played since losing the Pan American Games bronze medal match to top-ranked Brazil on Aug. 15. Since returning from the Dominican Republic, the team has been training specifically for the NORCECA championships.
"Training is going well," said Team USA head coach Doug Beal. "It's always nice to have a full squad in the gym."
The team that takes the court for the NORCECA tournament will look significantly different from the group that competed against Korea, Canada and in Santo Domingo earlier in the year.
Setter Lloy Ball and middle blocker Ryan Millar rejoined the team in August and provide instant upgrades at both of those positions. Middle blocker Tom Hoff, who has played in only three matches this season due to a hand injury and the birth of his daughter, is also healed and ready to contribute for the men. All three are past Olympians.
"With Lloy and Donald (Suxho) we have the strongest pair of setters we have had here in some time," admits Beal. "Hoff and Millar are both looking good and add a lot of experience to that position."
Team USA is in Pool B along with Guatemala, Mexico and Panama. Pool A consists of Canada, Cuba, Honduras and Puerto Rico.
On paper it may appear that the United States has an easy road to the NORCECA semifinals. Not so fast, says Beal.
"Mexico is a very good team, and they have the advantage of playing at home," he cautioned. "Panama and Guatemala are not threatening, but Mexico has some talented players and we have not seen them in a while."
In Pool A, Beal figures that Canada and Cuba will be battling for the top spot.
Cuba and the United States are the traditional powers in the NORCECA zone, which encompasses North America, Central America and the Caribbean.
Since the first men's 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.
Team USA is currently 10-3 on the season. After starting the year with a 3-2 loss to Korea on June 15, the team reeled off 10 straight wins before dropping its final two matches at the Pan American Games to Cuba (Aug. 13) and world No. 1 Brazil (Aug. 15) to finish the tournament in fourth place.