Stanford grad Erik Shoji was named the Most Impressive Player for digging and receiving in the path of Russia’s tough serves and attacks, recording a match-high 14 digs to help the U.S. men’s national volleyball team keep its hopes for Olympic qualification alive with a 25-23, 26-24, 25-17 win over Russia on Tuesday at the FIVB World Cup at Yoyogi National Gymnasium in Tokyo.
Micah Christenson/FIVBIt all comes down to one final match on Wednesday: the Americans (9-1) against Argentina (7-3), the same country which knocked the U.S. out of the FIVB World Championship last year.
A victory would give the United States one of two coveted, available berths into the 2016 Rio Olympics. A loss would give Italy a chance to slip in. Italy (9-1) meets Poland (10-0) on the final day of competition.
The Italians edged Argentina in five sets on Tuesday.
Shoji, the Americans’ starting libero, hung tough against the likes of Russia’s 7-foot-2 Dmitriy Muserskiy.
“Great teams usually have a great libero,” U.S. coach John Speraw said. “He’s a player that’s continuing to get better as he has had more and more opportunities. Like many of our players, it’s his first quadrennial, so I think he’s doing an outstanding job.”
In addition to the digs, Shoji was credited with excellent receptions.
Although the U.S. had only three aces, it had only 11 serving errors as well. Russia finished with two aces and a hitting efficiency of .397. The U.S. hitting efficiency behind setter Micah Christenson was .449.
Shoji said Russia challenged the U.S. the most in the second set when the U.S. trailed by three. The libero credited his brother, backup setter and serving specialist Kawika Shoji, also a Stanford grad, with helping to bring the team back.
“Russia is a team that can always come back,” Shoji said. “So you’re up three and then you’re tied instantly because their servers are so tough and they have a huge block. Kawika came in and turned us around. I was happy about that.”
With the U.S. trailing, 15-12, U.S. opposite Matt Anderson scored with a kill. Kawika came in to serve for middle blocker Max Holt and the U.S. scored two more points on a block from setter Micah Christenson and back-row attack from outside hitter Aaron Russell.
Russell led the U.S. in scoring with 16 points on 16 kills, many from the back-row. He also led in excellent receptions with 10.
Anderson added 12 points on 11 kills and one ace. Outside hitter Taylor Sander played an all-around strong match with five kills, three blocks and two aces.
The U.S. middle blockers continued to play key roles as Holt finished with eight points on five kills and three blocks and David Lee totaled seven points on seven attacks.
Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan and daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy, was at the match and congratulated the team in person.