The sitting volleyball preliminary round started off with some fireworks yesterday as Prince Harry joined his fellow British fans in the stands to watch his countrymen play Afghanistan. Prince Harry posed for photographs and cheered on the U.K. to a spirited two-set victory.
Afghanistan, which began the match down one man and forced to play with a coach on the floor, struggled out of the gate, losing the first game 25-2. Their play improved as the match went on, making the second game closer. Afghan Captain Jawed Ahmadi wasn’t discouraged by his team’s play:
“[The game] was very good because there is no matter of losing or winning because we are all the same people,” Ahmadi said, referring to his fellow disabled athletes.
Afghanistan made some adjustment and came out much stronger against France in their second game. Despite leading for a good portion of the second set, Afghanistan still fell to France 25-11, 25-15 in a competitive contest.
French captain Laurent Catelain noted he was excited to play for France and take care of business against Afghanistan, but noted the upcoming match against the U.K. would be the real test. “It will be a good challenge, but we will give all we have.”
On the adjacent court, Georgia and Denmark played one of the most contentious sets of the day, with Georgia eeking out a 25-20 win in the first set. Georgia’s attack proved to be the deciding factor in set two, as they rolled over the Danes 25-5
The Danes, playing in front of the most energetic fan base of the sitting volleyball audience, didn’t seem discouraged by their performance. Michael Soerensen, Denmark’s captain, said the team felt great after the game, noting “we are a small nation, but we will improve for the next game against a much different opponent.”
The U.S. and Canada both had strong cheers from their fans as well, and they drove an exciting match between the neighboring nations. The U.S. proved to be too strong for the Canadians, passing with excellent accuracy en route to a 25-10, 25-8 two-set victory.
“We are just out there to have fun and enjoy sitting volleyball, because for most of us, it’s our first time playing at a big event,” said Canada captain Mireille Poulin. “We had fun, and we’re moving on to the next game against Australia.”
That relaxed nature paid off in a big way in Canada’s next match against Australia. After losing the first set, the Canadians made some scrappy plays to force a third set, which they took with ease, wearing out the Aussies.
Looking forward to the next game against the U.S., Australian captain Brendan Dover credited Canada, but also noted that the experience playing in this environment would help. “Australia’s a big country and for some people it’s a six hour flight so we only had two practices, three days each. So that time on the court together helps us find out what our strengths and weaknesses are.”
Another three-set match took place in the third hour of play, with Estonia and Denmark pushing their limits. In the end, Denmark was able to avenge a first set defeat and use some big spikes to rally back for the match win, 20-25, 25-23, 15-8.
“We did very good in the first game,” said Estonian captain Margus Hoop, “but in the second we played a bit nervous since we haven’t played much together. But overall, it was good.”
The favorites playing the third hour were the Brits, who faced fellow European foe France on court one. France put up a strong fight in the first set, but still lost to the more aggressive British 25-20. In the second set, the U.K. pulled away and was up by double digits almost immediately, cruising to a 25-7 clincher.
Charles Walker, the U.K.’s team captain, said that the team looked shaky after the big win in the first match against Afghanistan and wasn’t ready to go for the second match. “We need to improve our match sharpness, as we’ve not played a lot of games. If we improve our match sharpness, we’ll be all right.”
The team that’s looked the sharpest in pool play had to be Georgia, who faced off against the Estonians on the second match of a back-to-back. Unfortunately, Estonian appeared a bit gassed after their duel with Denmark and fell 25-11, 25-15.
After the match, Georgia’s volleyball captain Besarion Gudushauri said, “We have the potential to play better and better, so we know we should have the same advantage as we play harder matches. We’ll be ready.”
A team the Georgians could definitely face in the future are the Americans, who dispatched Australia with 25-12 and 25-10 victories. The U.S. contingent never let off of the throttle and led the entire match thanks to a stingy defensive effort.
Captain Steven Davis of the U.S. remained confident after the match, citing the team’s aggression and cohesiveness as keys to making a deep run at the Games. On playing for his country, Davis said “It feels awesome to represent the United States, and that’s why we’re going to beat everyone else.”
The final match of the fourth hour proved to be the highlight of the day. After the Netherlands comfortably took the first set from Jordan, the Middle Eastern country fought back with a 25-20 second set win to force game three. In the tiebreaker, Jordan lost a heartbreaker after a controversial bobbled serve, losing 13-15 to the Dutch.
It’d be hard to tell that Jordan lost, as the team, led by captain Jamal Damra, did not seem down despite the unfortunate ending. “All of us are proud to be in this competition and it’s so amazing to see the Jordan flag in the United States. We hope to win next time.”
Onto the playoff rounds of the preliminaries, where the best teams from pool play matched up. The first game, featuring the U.K and Canada, turned out to be the biggest one-sided affair of the day. The Brits controlled the ball for the entirety, allowing only five points between the two games and solidifying a spot in the semifinals.
British competitor Robert Cromey-Hawk left the court feeling proud of his team. “It was great to see our performance improved through the three matches,” Cromey-Hawk said, “and hopefully, the slightly outstanding score that we just set against Canada can send a message to the other nations.”
Joining the U.K. in the semifinals will be the United States, who got a strong challenge from France. France struggled in game one, but after the break, was neck and neck with the Americans. A few key errors at the end decided the match, giving the U.S. a 25-12, 25-19 victory.
After the match, the U.S. team looked as pumped up as they’d been all day, realizing that they’d be advancing. Rhoden Galloway, one of the team’s leaders, said “We played like a team. We played awesome, we stayed together…and we know we won as a team. That was the big thing.”
The second set of playoff games brought as much noise as any time during the preliminaries. The Georgian powerhouse continued its momentum and toppled an intense effort from an undermanned Jordan squad 25-12, 25-18.
One of the keys for Georgia was David Davlashelidze, who led an all-around solid attack to lead his team, came of the court excited, but still hungry. “We have prepared for a long time for the Games,” Davlashelidze said, “so we are very happy. But the most important match is in the future.”
That future is the semifinals, which will feature the Netherlands after their comeback against Denmark. Struggling out of the gate, the Dutch turned it around in games two and three with impressive wins leading to a three-set victory.
Olaf Geurens looked out of breath after the hard-fought match and emphasized team play as the saving grace for the Netherlands. “We played as a team today, we worked hard. The third set was pretty brutal, but we pulled together at the end and made things possible for next week.
UK/Afghanistan (25-2, 25-8)
France/Afghanistan (25-11, 25-15)
UK/France (25/20, 25/7)
Georgia/Denmark (25-20, 25-5)
Estonia/Denmark (25-20, 23-25, 8-15)
Georgia/Estonia (25-11, 25-15)
USA/Canada (25-10, 25-8)
Canada/Australia (25-23, 16-25, 15-7)
USA/Australia (25-12, 25-10)
Netherlands/Jordan (25-16, 20-25, 15-13)
US/France (25-12, 25-19)
UK/Canada (25-1, 25-4)
Georgia/Jordan (25-12, 25-18)
Netherlands/Denmark (18-25, 25-10, 15-5)