DENVER – Taking a painful journey down memory lane, Kendra Lancaster recalled her reaction when the U.S. women’s sitting volleyball team graced the court against China.
“Ahhh!” she once muttered to herself. “The Chinese again!”
Despite having never beaten China, an undeniable sense of intimidation has given way to an overwhelming surge of confidence for the upstart Americans, who believe they finally possess the talent and the much-needed experience to topple the unyielding powerhouse.
The U.S. and China are the favorites for the 2012 Paralympics in London after meeting in the finals of the 2010 world championships and the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing – both won by China, both in a sweep. China also took home a gold at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, where the Netherlands claimed a silver and the U.S. was the bronze medalist.
In its most recent test against China, the U.S. took all four matches from a Shanghai club team last month during an exhibition series at the Colorado Convention Center. Only four members of China’s national team made the trip, but the victories prepared the U.S. for a tour of China in June, as well as tournaments in the Ukraine and Brazil in September.
“As far as our goals are concerned, we’re right on pace,” U.S. coach Bill Hamiter said. “We’re wanting to get more experience with some of our younger players, then execute a little bit better with our more experienced players. That’s the key. By next year, we want to have a tough time trying to pick our roster of 12 for the Paralympics.”
Hamiter probably will welcome back seven players from the team that lost to China twice in Beijing, most notably Lancaster, who has replaced Brenda Maymon as captain, and the world’s top libero in Kari Miller. Also expected to return is Katie Holloway, perhaps the best athlete on the squad, as she played basketball for four years at Cal State Northridge.
Lancaster called this group a “better team” compared to the 2008 group, mainly because “every time we hit the court, we’re getting better, we’re getting stronger and everything is coming together.” She said the U.S. can “definitely hang” with China. “It’s just we don’t get a whole lot of time playing them,” she conceded. “We don’t see them very often.”
Holloway said China’s system is “all about ball control. And off ball control, they’re very flexible with that. So anything goes, whether it’s first contact, not going to their definite setter. It doesn’t matter. They can all swing from any spot on the court.” To counter, the U.S. must “play our best and not make any errors,” Holloway said, with an emphasis on “making sure our block is there. And getting our first pass in system.”
About London, Hamiter wavered when asked if the Americans are capable of winning a gold. “Once you’re there, anything can happen,” Hamiter said. “Do we have the abilities on our team that we could win the gold? Most definitely. Our ladies have their sights on wanting to accomplish that. But they also realize there’s a lot that it takes to get there.”
For her third Paralympics, Lancaster wasn’t as noncommittal. She guaranteed a gold.
“We’re going to get it done,” Lancaster said, adding that “we’re going to get that gold in London, and it will finally be ours. And we’ll be able to say we’re the best in the world.”