LONDON -- One by one, they walked off the court and began the zigzagging trip to the locker room, their faces covered with blank expressions. Some wore towels over their heads, others just stared blankly ahead, refusing to making eye contact with anyone they passed. They just kept walking, staring at the floor in front of them.
Their pain was understandable. The U.S. men's indoor volleyball team had come to London with the goal of defending its 2008 gold medal from Beijing. Sure, this was a different team with a different coach and a new blend of chemistry. But the goal was the still the same. And after winning its preliminary group with a 4-1 record while winning more sets (14) than any other team in the tournament, the U.S. had high expectations entering Wednesday's quarterfinal match against Italy.
But in the span of exactly 90 minutes, those medal hopes came crashing down in a 28-26, 25-20, 25-20 loss. And as the Americans walked off the court, the red, white and green-clad Italian fans in the arena chanted, "Who-S-A, Who-S-A."
The scoreboard confirmed the Americans had no answer.
"It really just sucks," captain Clayton Stanley said. "It sucks to go out 0-3. It sucks not to play our best. It sucks not to advance. All of those things. It sucks."
The match turned in the first set, when the Italians erased a 15-13 U.S. lead and fought off three set points to win 28-26. The first set point came after the referee called in an American serve that television replays showed was clearly out. The Italians were livid at the time, with several of the players running around the court in utter disgust. Their coach, Mauro Berruto, confronted the referee, but the call stood.
But the Italians seemed energized by their frustration, winning four of the next six points to take the first set and all the momentum that came with it. After winning the set, they screamed and hugged in utter delight. The Americans trudged to the other end of the court to regroup for the second set. But that didn't happen. And at the end of the 3-0 sweep, everyone from Stanley to David Lee to U.S. coach Alan Knipe pointed to that moment as the turning point.
"It was tough," Lee said. "After that, a lot of guys had their heads down, but what can you do? You've got to forget that. You have to have a short memory. I think some guys got down on themselves and it carried through the rest of the sets."
Knipe said his team's problem wasn't a lack of heart or desire. If anything, it was the exact opposite. After losing the first set, he thought his players tried too hard, which led to a lack of execution.
"Sometimes you press a little bit," he said. "You want everything now, and one little piece will break down and you're not in the right spot and you're not trusting each other. I tend to believe this was more pressing than it was a lackluster effort or letdown."
At his postmatch news conference, Knipe referred to it as a "hangover effect." Whatever the explanation, it wasn't a good thing. Two teams were faced with an emotional moment early in their match on Wednesday. The Italians responded to the potentially backbreaking call that went against them by stepping up their play and winning the first set. The Americans responded by failing to ever regain control of the match.
Oh sure, at one point in the second set the U.S. won eight out of 11 points to turn a 12-8 deficit into a 16-15 lead. But again the Italians had an answer, winning five straight points to lead 20-16. They would never look back. The latest U.S. lead in the third set would come at 6-4. Italy cruised from there.
"You show how strong you are when strong is the only option you have," Berruto said. "We had only that one option. We had to be strong. I've never been so proud of my team as I am today."
The U.S., meanwhile, was left searching for answers as to how this could happen. Though it entered the tournament as the No. 5 team in the world, it had upset No. 1 Brazil in pool play and had a two-sets-to-none lead on No. 2 Russia before losing. But none of that matters now. The Americans are heading home with nothing around their necks. And for several players, the last time they'll wear a U.S. uniform has come on a night of bitter disappointment.
"I don't know," Stanley said when trying to explain what went wrong. "Maybe you over-force yourself and try too hard and make mistakes. Or maybe you don't take it serious enough and react. Maybe you're just not ready. I don't know. There's a lot of different things."
A few minutes later, when asked if there were any signs that something like Wednesday's disappointment might be a possibility, Stanley confessed there were. He pointed to a 3-0 loss to Poland in the finals of the World League this past July.
"I won't lie to you," he said. "It isn't the first time we've come out lackluster. I don't know what to tell you, how you can take it back or make it better. We just have to play better. Be a little bit more ready."
There will be four more years to think about that and prepare so the same thing doesn't happen in Rio de Janeiro. There the roster will undoubtedly be different. So, too, may be the coach. Knipe said Wednesday that the future of U.S. volleyball is bright with a crop of young talent on the way. But after the disappointing loss to Italy, nothing could have seemed less important.
No, this night was best summed up by the postmatch comments of both coaches. After hearing Berruto tell reporters how thrilled he was that he had promised his children his team would play for a medal and now it actually will, Knipe offered his thoughts.
"We had big plans for what we wanted to do at this tournament, too," he said. It's very disappointing."
Then he paused.
"And we WILL NOT be playing for a medal."