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Matt Rourke, Associated Press
United States head coach John Speraw speaks with Matthew Anderson during a men's preliminary volleyball match against France at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016.
Tay is our X factor. When he’s in the game and he’s confident, he’s one of the best players in the world, and we need that guy every night. —U.S. team captain David Lee, on Taylor Sander

RIO DE JANEIROBYU’s Taylor Sander went from looking uncertain he belonged in the Olympic games to completely confident that he and Team USA can earn a medal.

All it took was about 10 days of what he called “gnarly” competition in which the players 0-2 start meant must-win matches every time they stepped on the floor. Instead of buckling under that pressure, the Americans are energized by it — especially Sander.

“Tay is our X factor,” said team captain David Lee after Team USA swept Poland in the quarterfinals (25-23, 25-22, 25-20) to advance to the semifinals where they will face Italy. “When he’s in the game and he’s confident, he’s one of the best players in the world, and we need that guy every night. In the first few games, he might not have been there, but now, with him firing on all cylinders, it’s a guy that is making an impact on these victories.”

Lee said Sander seems to rise to the occasion, and the tougher it is, the tougher he is.

“He needs to have everything on the line for him to really be firing,” Lee said. “And we need him playing like that these next few rounds.”

Sander finished with nine kills and two aces, while Aaron Russell earned 12 kills and two blocks. Matthew Anderson added nine kills and had the fastest serve, just as he has every match, at 118 kilometers per hour (about 73 mph). Bartosz Kurek led Poland with 10 kills and one block.

Sander said it’s been a wild ride to go from an 0-2 start to preparing to play in the semifinals of the Olympics.

“Our team is pretty tough,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing how tough we’ve been. We played so many good teams and played really well against them, so we just want to keep that going. We want to keep getting tougher and experiences those two losses at the beginning, we had to change something.”

He said that while many people wrote them off as too young (eight first time Olympians on the roster) and too inexperienced, they never doubted themselves. “We believed the whole time,” he said. “Canada we played bad, but Italy we played better. … They just made some big plays. We came back from that. It’s been a tough journey, tough to play. … They’re all good teams. It’s a gut-check for sure, pretty gnarly.”

Sander said the team will not start thinking about a gold medal, but instead focus on just winning another match on Friday.

“I’m just ready for another match,” he said. “I think that’s how we’re going to look at it. It’s just another match. It’s another chance to go out and be tough and aggressive and represent our country. And that’s really cool. It’s cool being part of the semifinals at the Olympics. I’m so blessed for that, and it’s so cool.”

The all-American said he’s never experienced anything like this tournament.

“I’ve changed my game so much from when I was younger,” he said. “But I’m playing the way I wanted to — aggressive. I’m positive out there, and my teammates are doing a good job at helping me and communicating.”

The team’s confidence couldn’t be higher as they head into the semifinals where USA faces Italy.

The crowd has been loudly behind whomever the Americans have played, but Sander said he loves that.

“We love either one,” he said. “It’s cool playing in a country where their love of volleyball is great, and have you heard the USA fans? We have a good crowd here. It’s awesome to look up and smile at them.”

His touchstone before game is finding his wife, Rachel, in the crowd and blowing her a kiss.

“It helps me relax,” he said. “It’s awesome to have her here. She’s supported me through a lot. I’m grateful for where I am.”

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