TOKYO, Japan — Coach Karch Kiraly knew there would be challenges and adversity if the U.S. women's volleyball team could finally break through and win a first Olympic gold medal in the sport.
Boy was he right.
Two key starters have gone down with ankle injuries, an assistant coach spent two weeks in quarantine as a close contact to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and the Americans dealt with a straight set loss to the team known as the Russia Olympic Committee.
But after finishing pool play with a tense, five-set win over Italy on Monday despite setter Jordyn Poulter joining star Jordan Thompson on the sideline with a rolled right ankle, the U.S. heads into the quarterfinals in good form.
“We have had our share and our team handled it superbly,” Kiraly said about the adversity. “They really stayed together. I look back and our substitute box is getting very lonely back there. There’s only three or four players there. So it’s getting to be a bit of an adventure. But our team played with great heart and played together."
In Kiraly's first Olympics as a head coach, the Americans raced through their first six matches undefeated before losing in the semifinals to Serbia after star blocker Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson went down with a knee injury.
The injuries to Thompson and Poulter haven't slowed down the U.S. team yet in Tokyo, with Annie Drews thriving in place of Thompson as an opposite and Micha Hancock stepping in at setter after Poulter got hurt.
“We have 23 people that could have been on this roster,” captain Jordan Larson said. “We knew it was going to take a lot of us to find a way to win. We’re finding that now. We can have anybody at any point step in and take over a match. We have confidence and trust that people are going to do their job and execute at a high level. We’ve been talking about it and you’re just seeing it come to play now.”
Drews led the team with 22 points in the five-set win over Italy in her first Olympic start after Thompson rolled her ankle upon landing on a teammate's foot in a loss Saturday to the ROC.
Thompson was watching from the stands. She is working tirelessly to rehab the injury in hopes of being able to return later in the tournament.
Thompson came into the day tied for the third most points in the tournament with 66, but there was little drop-off with Drews in there instead.
“Definitely a little nervous at the beginning, a good nervous,” she said. “But it’s a role I’ve played with our team before. I felt the trust they had in me. Obviously not the circumstances you’d like to be playing in, but we talk a lot about being 12 strong. So when our team needs something of any of us, we’re going to do our best to fill those shoes.”
Poulter landed on a teammate's foot in the third set and watched the end of the match from a wheelchair. She was to undergo tests on the ankle after the match to determine the severity of the injury.
The next task for the U.S. team will be the quarterfinals on Wednesday. The matchups for those games are still to be determined.
Serbia (4-1) swept South Korea earlier Monday, but both teams advanced to the quarterfinals out of Pool A along with Brazil (4-0) and the winner of the matchup between Japan and the Dominican Republic.
Italy (3-2), ROC (3-1) and Turkey (2-2) also advanced out of Pool B, with the final seeding to be determined after the matchup between ROC and Turkey.
The winners of each pool will play the fourth-place team in the opposite pool in the quarterfinals, with a draw late Monday to determine the other two matchups.
Defending champion China did not advance to the quarterfinals for the first time in 10 Olympic trips after star Zhu Ting was hampered by an injured right wrist. The Chinese were eliminated after losing their first three matches.
“Any team in this tournament has shown they can be really good,” Larson said. “I think no one expected that maybe China would be out at this point. So really, anybody can have a night. I think we just got to be ready to control what we can on our side of the net and let the rest play out.”