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U.S. men's volleyball team plays with no cohesion

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Latest: Saturday September 23, 2000 11:40 AM


SYDNEY, Australia -- The pre-match introductions at 11:55 on yet another sunsplashed Sydney morning were no doubt instructive to the volleyball mob at Pavilion 4, but everyone would have been better served if the U.S. men had been introduced to one another.

This is George Roumain. He will be your opposite hitter. Right. He's the big guy, the one with a crewcut and muscles out of the NFL.

Over here, that's Mike Lambert, who kills the ball when he isn't killing the team by hitting it three feet long.

And the guy over there, the one with the big heart and the bad right knee, he's Lloy Ball. He will be your setter this afternoon. Try to make your passes somewhere in the same zip code so he doesn't have to run around like a car-pooling mom to put the ball where it should be for the hitters.

The Americans are playing like six guys named Alphonse and Gaston, and the French didn't even qualify for Sydney. With the U.S. down two games and tied 15-15 in the third against previously winless Yugoslavia Thursday -- a dire situation, yet one tinged with hope given the Yugoslavs' sudden case of nerves -- a soft ball fell harmlessly in the back of the court between Ball and libero Erik Sullivan, an unforgivable lack of communication at that juncture of the match for the fifth-ranked team in the world.

The U.S., a 25-15, 25-20, 25-23 loser, is now 0-3 and has won just two games in its three matches. Depending on Argentina's results, the Americans might have to sweep Korea and then take Italy in four games to reach the quarterfinals. While they're at it, they will also have to part the Red Sea. Italy is the world's best, a mountain that seems too high for a team so fragile that it frayed like the cuffs of an old pair of jeans after an opening loss to the Argentines.

"It might be me," Ball said later in a press conference, showing more emotion than he had on the court. "I'm beginning to think I'm the reason. Maybe I should just get the hell out."

He did get out about 40 minutes later with his wife, Sarah, a blue ice bag on his tendinitis-riddled right knee and a grim look on his face, limping off into Olympic Park, as anonymous as any 6-8 man can be. Arguably, Ball is the best American volleyball player since Karch Kiraly in the 1980s, but undoubtedly he is the most compelling. As a setter, he is the man most involved in scribbling the raucous free verse that is international volleyball. From his spot on the right side of the court, he will, on the perfectly constructed point, get the second touch, instinctively feathering it in the perfect spot to the sweet-hitting Roumain or setting up John Hyden up the middle.

The problem is the U.S. has not constructed enough of those points, blocking ineffectually at the net, looking befuddled on the dinks that the Yugoslavs mixed in with a power game, and parlaying one mistake into the next. Their opponents -- Argentina, Russia, Yugoslavia -- have played well but not overwhelmingly so, nothing coach Doug Beal thinks is beyond his players' capability to have handled. The U.S. simply has performed like perfect strangers.

The men vowed never to repeat the disastrous ninth-place finish of the 1996 Olympics, but this is Atlanta, The Sequel. The Olympic tournament would be the U.S.'s Groundhog Day, except that groundhogs dig to better effect.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Farber is in Sydney covering the Games for the magazine and Check back daily to read Farber's behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.

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