A Motivated Bulgaria Finds A Way to Win
You couldn't tell Team Bulgaria was 0-7 in World League play this year the way they played tonight. It was evident Friday night at the post-match press conference that Bulgarian captain, Todar Aleksiev, was not happy with their 1-3 performance in front of a large group of Bulgarian fans. He sat in the empty press conference room alone with a disappointed look. Saturday night the Bulgarians played an inspired first two sets and survived disastrous third and fourth sets to win their first 2014 World League match, 3-2.
Team USA started the same lineup as the past three matches with the exception of starting Kawika Shoji in the setter position for Micah Christenson who struggled with a tight back and was subbed out in the first set on Friday night. Sander, Shoji and Holt started in the front row. Lee, Anderson and Rooney were in the back.
The two teams traded kills throughout the first half of the set with neither team having more than a 3 point advantage. After the second technical time out, Team USA had a four point run including two kills by Taylor Sander and a Max Holt ace widening their lead to 20-15. It looked like Team USA was about to wrap up the first set.
Sean Rooney gave Team USA their first chance at set point with a left side tool of the block making it 24-19. Bulgaria responded with 7 straight points shocking Team USA and stunning the crowd. The seven points included three straight aces by Todor Skrimov and two US hitting errors.
Anderson, Rooney and Sander shared honors with four points each in set one. Skrimov lead Bulgaria with 9 points including 5 kills, 3 aces and a block.
Team Bulgaria kept the momentum going in the second set never losing the lead after the 2-2 tie. Bulgaria strung together a 3 and 4 point run early in the set to open the lead to 10-4. The 4 point run included 2 back-to-back aces by Nikolay Nikolov who was targeting Taylor Sander in serve receive. Coach John Speraw subbed Carson Clark for Matt Anderson at opposite after a 3 point Bulgaria run making it at 17-10 Bulgaria. Team USA had 5 service errors in a row including the 25th point for Bulgaria. The 25-17 score had the Bulgarian fans on their feet and hopeful for their first World League victory.
Sean Rooney had two kills and an ace. Skrimov and Sokolov each had 3 kills.
Coach Speraw decided to try something different based on the first two sets ending in defeat. Micah Christenson was brought in as setter despite back tightness. Carson Clark, who was subbed in for Anderson in the second set, started at opposite and Matt Anderson was moved over to the left side.
Team USA didn't take long to take over the set. Team USA broke a 2-2 tie with a 5 point run started by a Carson Clark crosscourt kill from the right side. The US didn't let up the pressure and started another 5 point run including two aces by Anderson. Bulgaria was unable to get any momentum and Taylor Sander ended the set at 25-14 with a left handed line shot. Team USA had 6 blocks and 4 aces during the set.
The fourth set didn't end up any better for Bulgaria despite keeping it close in the beginning including a 9-9 tie. Team USA went on five and six point runs. Team Bulgaria had numerous hitting errors and couldn't even get lucky. David Lee scored a kill from the back row (during his serve) with a one-handed dig that sailed over the net and landed on the Bulgarian backline. Fittingly, Viktor Yosifov gave USA set point with a service error into the net. Team USA won 25-13 with 8 kills, 4 blocks and 3 aces.
Team USA had all of the momentum going into the fifth set after two dominating double digit set wins to tie it 2 sets a piece. However, Team Bulgaria had their secret weapon of a large, noisy fan base that didn't stop cheering even during their two large set losses.
Matt Anderson started the set with a thundering back row quick attack. Holt, Sokolov and Clark then traded service errors indicating that neither team was giving up on using tough serving as a weapon. Trouble started for Team USA after two errors including a mistiming quick between Lee and Christianson and a Bulgarian overpass that rolled down the US side of the net resulting in a double hit by Christianson. The lead stretched to 6-3 Bulgaria went Carson Clark hit wide on a right side cross court attempt.
Tsvetan Soklolov tooled the US block bringing the score to 8-5 and time to switch sides. Team USA made a big push scoring 4 points in a row including a Sander back row quick and an Anderson ace down the right sideline. During the same run, Sokolov was called in the net in an overpass kill then stuffed on a tight set at the net. Coach Camillo Piaci subbed out Sokolov with Venelin Kadankov.
Skrimov stopped the run with a crosscourt kill from the left side and began a 4 point Bulgaria run. Nikolov, despite a poor toss served a roll shot ace right into the USA serve receive campfire zone. Coach Speraw subbed Shoji back in for Christenson after he missed Sander on an outside attack by a mile. During the press conference, Coach Speraw said Christenson had reinjured his back during a play at the net a few plays earlier. A Carson Clark service error gave Bulgaria their first match point. Team Bulgaria actually thought they had won the match during their serve and started celebrating and walking off the floor. However, Team USA made a running save deep in the corner and returned a free ball over. Bulgaria did pass the free ball but ended up hitting the attack into the net making it 14-12. A quick middle attack finished off the match giving Bulgaria a 15-12, 3-2 match win capping a great comeback.
Team USA is now 7-1 and heading to Europe for their last two rounds of play against Russia and Serbia. The top two teams from pools A and B will qualify for finals in Florence, Italy.