Saturday, August 11, 2012

Olympics | Lessons learned from volleyball's gold medal match

Brazil 3, USA 1 (11-25, 25-17, 25-20, 25-17)
After shock and a bit of sadness, fans of USA volleyball will want to evaluate just how sure-fire gold slipped from the team’s fingers. Here, then, are some early talking points:
Brazilian ball falls between Nicole Davis and Lindsey Berg
In every volleyball match, at every level, winning teams have to serve tough and pass well. Many of USA’s 9 service errors came at inopportune momentum-killing times, especially the 4 by Logan Tom. But USA’s serve-receive was the real story: libero Nicole Davis was simply not up to the task, and USA coach Hugh McCutcheon made a huge mistake sticking with poor-passing Megan Hodge too long. Far too often, USA was operating out-of-system and Brazil was in-system. At this level, that essentially spells defeat.

When USA is in-system, Lindsey Berg does a good job setting her favorite target, Destinee Hooker, but too often fails to exploit the considerable hitting skills of her middle blockers. When passes are less than perfect, Berg has shown a striking inability to consistently deliver good balls to her outside hitters.
As the gold medal match drew to its grim conclusion, the camera caught Berg’s steely glare, precisely at a time when she instead needed to be talking to her teammates, offering fire, optimism and leadership.
Without question, Hugh McCutcheon is an outstanding coach, easily among the top three in the world. But when Brazil made its move, McCutcheon countered with moves he undoubtedly regret.
·         USA’s dismantled Brazil in the first set largely on the strength of Foluke Akinradewo. The powerful middle got touches and blocks seemingly at will, and always rewarded sets with a kill (she made zero hitting errors throughout the match, yet got only 12 sets, mostly in the first set.) For some reason, McCutcheon pulled Akinradewo during the fourth set, right when she might have made a difference. McCutcheon should have insisted that more offense go through Akinradewo, and kept her in the match throughout.
·         An even bigger mistake was McCutcheon’s inexplicable decision to insert Hodge for Jordan Larson … and then keep her there. It was clear by the end of the second set that Berg and Hodge were not connecting and that Hodge was not blocking effectively. In the second and third sets, the passing combination of Hodge and Davis was disastrous.
·         Toward the end of third set, it was obvious Berg was not going to set Hodge in the back row. At that point, McCutcheon should have put his focus on defense, and inserted Tama Miyashiro to pass. Brazil, by contrast, worked out of its malaise by improving its passing and varying its attack with off speed hits and tips. Better USA defense might have shut down that strategy before it got rolling.
·         As Brazil’s confidence grew, its outside hitters attacked at a sharp angle. If McCutcheon didn’t tell his blockers to block cross and force Brazil to attack line, he should have. As it was, nearly every Brazilian kill landed cross-court. And with devastating results.

USA's Foluke Akinradewo attacks one of her 8 kills. She had no errors and hit .750 for the match

The only USA player who never left the bench was setter Courtney Thompson. Berg’s weaknesses are precisely Thompson’s strengths: Thompson is a fiery leader. She connects well with her outside hitters when she’s out-of-system. She mixes up her targets when she’s in-system. She serves tough. She plays much, much better defense than Berg.
After the utter mess of the second and third sets, McCutcheon needed to shake things up. Inserting Thompson would have done the trick.
Brazil's Fe Garay hits cross-court, through the USA block
If you’re like me, it’s easy to avoid reading about such a painful loss. But, at some point, the lessons learned will lay the groundwork for the next Olympics … in Brazil. With Berg announcing her retirement, McCutcheon leaving to head up Minnesota’s program, and with Scott-Arruda, Haneef-Park and Logan Tom possibly at the end of their long Olympic tenures, how would you evaluate the road ahead?

  • In a strange irony, Brazil would not have advanced into the medal round if Turkey had won at least two sets from USA. USA beat Turkey 3-0; even if it had lost (or won 3-2), it would have still advanced as the top seed in Pool B.


  1. Major tactical errors. There are times when you have to make changes to break the opponents momentum. When you have the best players in the world - use them. No shame in the silver medal. So happy and proud of Tama and Courtney.

  2. Jack,

    Your words are my exact sentiments!!! A frustrating match to watch and stomach after the first set. Never the less Congratulations to the US team, but especially to Courtney and Tama. We know they'll be in Brazil in 2016 with Courtney at the helm! Go Huskies!

  3. Will Jim M be offered the coaching vacancy again and if so, would he accept this time?

    1. Washington coach Jim McLaughlin is always on the short list for the USA Volleyball National Team. No reason to think that won't be the case once again.

      It's a difficult and demanding job, requiring many months of overseas travel each year. Any coach approached with an offer will have to weigh a lot of factors, including their willingness/ability to spend long periods away from family.

  4. Hugh's choices on the Gold match was weird. It was nothing compared to his consistent choices with the double subs and whatnot. It was almost like calling a sub but he just pointed a finger to whoever to come in. He should have sticked to what he knows and in their system. I heard Karch offering him all this options and if I'm not mistaken even mentioned Courtney's name couple of times. Happy with the Silver but then the crumbled when they started losing which they never experienced all season.

  5. Jack you described many of my sentiments. To not use Courtney in the third/fourth matches is incomprehensible to the point of egregious. Do I understand it correctly that he used all the other players except Courtney, there has to be something there that I'm missing. I don't agree with your high rating of Hugh and will be glad to see him move over to the golden gophers. I trust he will not be in charge of something so important again. I can't remember being this agitated over bad coaching decisions. I had to admit there was a part of me remembering the 1988 men's Olympic game with Karch where they down 2 to 0 to the Russians, losing the third game and came back to win. I was hoping to see Courtney come in and repeat it here, but it's hard to do that from the bench. Jim Belcher

  6. Logan Tom said something to Larson on the court. Then their was a timeout during which Tom told McCutcheon to pull Larson. Shortly after Larson was substitued out. Maybe Tom should have been substituted for - she's slow.


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