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Saturday, August 14, 2004
U.S. falls to China, faces Germany next

Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- The United States is poised to make a run at its first gold medal in women's volleyball, and China might be the biggest challenge.

Tough way to start the Olympic tournament.

Paced by the power of outside Hao Yang and limiting its mistakes, the Chinese team beat the Americans in four sets Saturday.

"One way or another, we've got to beat them some time," said star hitter Logan Tom, who had a team-high 14 points.

China, the team chosen by many to win gold in these games, was just a little too much for the United States -- which has a promising mix of young and old players hoping to use momentum from a fourth-place finish in Sydney in 2000.

Heather Bown's block attempt fell short in the fourth and least-competitive set, ending the match at 25-21, 23-25, 25-22, 25-18.

The United States beat China in three sets last month at the World Grand Prix tournament, but the difference in this one was defense. The Chinese simply dug more balls.

"We know that the American team are very strong blockers," captain Kun Feng said through an interpreter. "We are quite prepared for that. We are patient."

In a second set in which both teams were within two points of each other at all times, the U.S. took four of the last five points to pull even. Olympic rookie Ogonna Nnamani, a reserve outside who was an All-American at Stanford, played extensively and had five of her eight kills in that set.

But the Chinese toughed out an intense third set and pulled away in the final frame.

"We did not find a way to turn things around," said coach Toshi Yoshida, whose team was also unable to capitalize on a break just two points into the match.

China's best middle blocker, the 6-foot-5 Zhao Ruirui, limped off the court after reaggravating an injury to her right leg that kept her out of the World Grand Prix. She was later carried off on a gurney and taken to a local hospital for X-rays, which showed a stress fracture.

"We do hope that she can join us in the coming matches," coach Chen Zhonghe said through a translator.

Without Zhao in the World Grand Prix, China finished fifth and fell to third in the latest international rankings. But it was a valuable experience, playing without her, as the Chinese proved.

Using five kills by the feisty Yang, they won the first set and delighted the hundreds of their fellow citizens who showed up at the Peace and Friendship Stadium. China's contingent, clad in white T-shirts featuring the country's red flag, easily drowned out the Americans in attendance.

"We've got very tough competitors in our pool," Chen said. "It is a good way to build up our confidence."

The U.S. team hasn't lost its confidence by any means. Each team plays the five opponents in its pool once, with the top four finishers in each group advancing to the medal round, so China was a good match to get out of the way.

"Personally, I think our team is fine," Tom said. "China's over, and we have to look at Germany."

That's the next opponent. Earlier in the day, the Germans surprised three-time defending gold medalist Cuba in five sets before Russia breezed by the Dominican Republic in three. In Pool A, Brazil beat Japan, host Greece defeated Kenya and Italy beat Korea -- all in three sets.

There's a long way to go, so a loss in the opener doesn't do any damage.

"All I know is that we have to be positive," said U.S. captain Tara Cross-Battle, competing in her fourth Olympics.