Thinking about Hugh McCutcheon's USA women's volleyball team evokes memories of my first-ever piece I wrote for Bleacher Report. On August 21, 2008, I published an article talking about Cuba's women's volleyball team eating humble pie at the expense of the states during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Today, I sing the praises of the United States women once again. This time, it's the whole wide world eating humble pie at the expense of McCutcheon's ladies. On Sunday, August 29 at the Beilun Gymnasium in Ningbo, China, the USA swept Japan 26-24, 25-20, 25-23 to win the 2010 FIVB World Grand Prix, women's volleyball's most prestigious tournament.
The victory ends a nine-year drought for the States, who last won the World Grand Prix in 1995 and 2001.
But it wasn't an easy road for the USA to make it this far. It began in the Baja, California, town of Tijuana, Mexico, where the IX Women's Volleyball Panamerican Cup took place.
The action started on June 18, when the USA took on Peru. It was a sweep: 27-25, 25-22, 25-17. And this was the beginning of a series of sweeps for the States. Puerto Rico was the next to fall (25-13, 25-17, 25-14), then Trinidad & Tobago (25-17, 25-9, 25-11), then Costa Rica (25-11, 25-10, 25-2), and then the hosts Mexico (25-12, 25-16, 25-15).
Sadly, they would face a major hurdle in eventual Panamerican Cup champions Dominican Republic. After dropping the first set, the Dominican Republic proved that baseball isn't the only sport they are adept at, winning 22-25, 25-23, 25-22, 25-16. The USA would have to settle for bronze, sweeping Cuba 25-15, 25-20, and 25-17.
But the States had already qualified for the FIVB World Grand Prix, and they got their chance for revenge against the Dominicans to start the first preliminary round of competition.
They took advantage, rolling to a 3-1 (26-24, 22-25, 25-14, 25-19) win in Gdynia, Poland. Destinee Hooker topped the scores for the victors with 17 points in a sloppily played contest offensively.
In spite of Hooker scoring 24 points against Germany, the States fell 1-3 (23-25, 23-25, 25-16, 23-25). They would collapse one more time, this time against the hosts Poland 1-3 (16-25, 26-24, 25-19, 25-23). Hooker again led the charge with 19 points.
The two losses were fuel for the States to go on the attack. Knowing that their chance to go to Ningbo were fading before their very eyes, they ripped apart Italy at Bangkok's Keelawes Gymnasium 3-1 (26-28, 26-24, 25-23, 25-15).
Bolstering the hopes of the States was the arrival of celebrated Stanford ace Logan Tom. Combined with Heather Bown and libero Stacy Sykora, the USA proceeded to become an impenetrable force, leaving destruction in its wake through timely hitting, precision blocking, and deadly jump serves from Tom.
Next up were the hosts Thailand. It was a walk in the park for the favorites, as the hosts were swept, 25-18, 25-21, 25-13. The victory signified revenge for an unimpressive 3-2 defeat at last year's World Grand Prix.
The States wrapped up the second round against Puerto Rico, and in spite of dropping their first set, they proceeded to win 3-1 (21-25, 25-22, 25-12, 25-15). The top six teams in the preliminary rounds advance to the final round, and now the USA rose to fifth. It was off to the Hong Kong Coliseum for the third preliminary round.
The USA got a chance for more revenge against Germany. And the payback factor proved too strong for the Germans to reprise their performance in Poland. Never mind that the addition of one Logan Tom complicated matters. It was a sweep for McCutcheon's girls in the form of 25-15, 25-18, 25-13.
"Our team played very well today," McCutcheon said on the victory. "We were strong in tactics and technical skills. We are making improvement from weekend to weekend."
The improvements continued for the USA as they faced Thailand once again. It was another walk in the park, as the Stars and Stripes swept the Thais in identical 25-16 sets. They wrapped up preliminary round play at the Hong Kong Coliseum with their first look at China.
Through the power of Hooker and Foluke Akinradewo, the USA proceeded to destroy their eternal rivals in women's volleyball by the score of 25-19, 25-10, 22-25, 25-22.
The States then wrapped their FIVB World Grand Prix campaign with action in the final round. Their first match against Jerzy Matlak's Poland went the distance, and the duo of Anna Baranska and Karolina Kosek made things difficult for McCutcheon's team. But the States, led by former Cardinal Ogonna Nnamani and by the blocking power of Bown, Akinradewo and Alisha Glass, took their time and dismantled the Poles 13-25, 18-25, 28-26, 25-19, 15-12.
Their second match in the final round was against Italy. It wasn't any tough setting for the States, who swept Massimo Barbolini's side 25-23, 25-20, 25-14. That set up a classic encounter between Jose Roberto Guimaraes's Brazilian national team and McCutcheon's rising Americans.
Akinradewo pulled the strings with 16 kills and seven blocks in the USA's 3-2 (22-25, 25-19, 30-28, 17-25, 15-13) victory.
"It was a very difficult match. Both teams played hard. There are some great hits, some great rallies. It was very close," McCutcheon said following the match. "I'm very happy, but we understand that we have a lot to do. Brazil taught us a lot tonight."
And a lot more came in the form of matches against China and Japan. Wang Baoquan's team were looking for revenge from their 3-1 setback in Hong Kong.
They weren't going to get it. And the reason for that: Destinee Hooker. Her 24 points, combined with suffocating defense on China's Wang Yimei—who only managed 14 kills—paced the States to an improbable 3-0 (25-21, 27-25, 25-22) sweep.
"I'm happy about the way we played today," a belated McCutcheon said following the game. "I'm satisfied with my team. They were very disciplined in serving, blocking and defense and that helped us to get the result."
Masayoshi Manabe's Japan was not going to to make things any easier for the USA on Sunday. They were the only team that stood in the way of the States from earning their third FIVB World Grand Prix title. But the 4,000 in attendance at the Beilun Gymnasium watched in awe, as the USA, led by captain Jennifer Tamas, outblocked Japan by a blistering 15 to three en route to a 26-24, 25-20, 25-23 sweep.
"I'm really proud of my team, not only for winning this tournament, but also for the way they were playing," a relieved McCutcheon said after the match. "It's a tough match against Japan. We were happy we won. I'm very happy with our performance at the tournament. This is a great start for us, but we clearly know we need to make improvement."
If that's the case, watch out contenders; the queens of women's volleyball have officially put you on notice.