BEIJING Twenty-four hours before taking the court for their first scheduled Beijing Summer Games match, members of the United States men's volleyball team were looking forward to making a strong opening statement with the Olympic debut of head coach Hugh McCutcheon.
The Americans had worked hard for nearly four years under the New Zealand native and former BYU player and assistant coach, achieving a No. 3 international ranking and this summer's World League title.
Then came the call that sent McCutcheon rushing from Saturday's early afternoon practice, with a couple of hours passing before the players learning the gravity of the situation that McCutcheon's in-laws had been stabbed at a Beijing tourist site by a knife-wielding assailant, that Todd Bachman had died from the attack and that Barbara Bachman suffered life-threatening injuries requiring eight hours of surgery later that day.
With heavy hearts and cluttered minds, the U.S. team took to the Capital Gymnasium court Sunday and struggled to defeat Venezuela in the maximum five sets.
Afterward, the Americans acknowledged the challenge to play without McCutcheon, who spent the day with his wife, Elisabeth, in caring for Barbara Bachman.
Known as "Wiz" when she played at UCLA and with the U.S. women's national and Olympic teams, Elisabeth McCutcheon was present but not injured during the attack.
"There's nothing in comparison to the loss that happened to our team, to USA volleyball and to our whole delegation," said U.S. team captain Tom Hoff. "We came to do this (play volleyball), but it's very hard to carry on."
With assistant coach Ron Larsen leading the squad, the U.S. overcame losses in the third and four sets to post the 25-18, 25-18, 22-25, 21-25, 15-10 victory over Venezuela.
"It's a difficult situation for everybody," said middle blocker Ryan Millar, who also played for McCutcheon for four years at BYU. "I can't even imagine how Hugh and Wiz are dealing with this."
As a tribute to the Bachmans, the U.S. team gathered for a prolonged team huddle and moment of silence just after the pre-match introductions, and they had written the couple's initials on the back of their shoes.
"Obviously, hearing the news was tragic, stunning words can't describe it," said Hoff. "All you want it to do is 'What can I offer, what can the team offer' that's all you can do, to feel that helplessness and just wonder 'What we can do?'"
Larsen has an idea: "The best way to handle this, the only thing we can do is compete every day and play hard every day and enjoy the game of volleyball, as they (the Bachmans) did."
McCutcheon hasn't abandoned his U.S. team, calling the players late Saturday night in a conference call to give them details and encouragement.
"To hear his voice and get leadership from him meant a tremendous amount for myself and I know for the other guys as well," said Hoff.
The United States ripped off a pair of 25-18 victories in the first two sets and looked ready to cruise to a three-game sweep.
But Venezuela which had beaten the U.S. in the 2006 World Championships in Japan seemed upset-minded by claiming the third and fourth sets and staying even with the Americans through the middle of the fifth and final set.
"We should have won the fifth game," said Venezuelan libero Joel Silva, who plays collegiately at BYU, "but they played well at the end and we didn't."
Clayton Stanley led the U.S. with 12 kills, while William Priddy added 12 and Millar 9. The Americans out-blocked their opponents 15-7, led by David Lee's five.The United States is off until Tuesday's match against Italy.