LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — On the back of an extra business card with his name on it, U.S. coach Karch Kiraly scribbled a No. 1 and tucked it in his right pocket to show his players and acknowledge a significant step toward the goal of reaching the Rio Olympics.
One set down against a Canada team defending with tenacity, then two more Thursday night. The world’s top-ranked Americans need nine winning sets in all this week to secure their bid — after missing a chance to do so at last year’s World Cup in Japan.
Kiraly has nine such cards with him, an idea inspired from reading fellow 1996 Olympic champion Andre Agassi‘s autobiography “Open” a few years back and his approach to filing each set away during the course of a tennis Grand Slam.
Kiraly shared that with his team.
“That’s one way to think about it is really go hard for this next point and do that for a set of volleyball,” Kiraly said. “And if we get one of those, they can’t take it away from us. It gets us a little closer to the easiest route to winning this tournament, which is to try to notch nine sets.”
Jordan Larson returned with fanfare to her home state of Nebraska as she helped lead the U.S. to the 25-18, 25-18, 25-15 victory over Canada in the opener of its NORCECA Olympic qualifying tournament, drawing cheers from the crowd of 6,322 every time she served or touched the ball.
“It’s great to be home, the home crowd, they just love volleyball,” Larson said. “It’s so awesome to see.”
The Americans topped the 16th-ranked and lowest seed Canadians with their depth and powerful attack in the victory at Pinnacle Bank Arena to take the first step toward earning a berth into this summer’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
“We responded well and remembered we’ve been together for 10 days and it’s just not going to be something that comes together like that,” Nicole Fawcett said. “It’s a process.”
In the second set, Fawcett’s service ace put the U.S. up 23-17 and Kelsey Robinson‘s kill soon ended it, then Fawcett made a kill on match point. Kiraly’s 14-player squad this week features five players who settled for silver at the London Olympics in a disappointing loss to Brazil.
The Americans went 41-6 in 2015 but lost twice at the World Cup in Japan in late August and early September to miss a qualifying chance for Rio.
Canada dug out some tough balls, forcing the Americans to play longer points.
“We never shy away from long rallies,” outside hitter Megan Easy said. “We weren’t quite as crisp as we wanted to be. These tournaments are stressful. We found a way to kind of temper our nerves, playing in American finally. I was just proud of everyone that they got control of their nerves and we all just fought together.”
In Friday night’s lineup for the round-robin event, the U.S. takes on No. 15 Puerto Rico, a four-set loser in Thursday’s opening match to the seventh-ranked Dominican Republic — 17-25, 25-13, 25-23, 25-23.
Dominican Republic middle blocker Jineiry Martinez went out with her team down 9-8 in the fourth set and was carried to the bench. She said immediately afterward she hurt her right knee but it was “better” and she expects to play Friday against Canada.
“For our team the game is tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. I think we only have a chance against the U.S. when they play on 80 percent and we play 120,” coach Arnd Ludwig said. “I’m quite satisfied with how my team played today. We played a very good defensive game.”
Canada hasn’t reached the Olympics since 1996.
The public address announcer gave a shout out to the three former Nebraska players — Larson, Kayla Banwarth and Robinson, who spent one year with the recently crowned NCAA volleyball champion Cornhuskers.
“I’m on cloud nine right now, playing in front of the home crowd,” Robinson said. “It’s always special to come home here.”