BEIJING — Real-life, tug-at-the-heartstrings drama has been part of the entire Olympics for the U.S. men's volleyball team.
First the tragic murder of coach Hugh McCutcheon's father-in-law Todd Bachman. Then McCutcheon's return to the bench once his injured mother-in-law, Barbara Bachman, recovered well enough from the attack to be flown home. Then Wednesday morning's visit from Make-A-Wish participant Miles Britton, 15, who is in remission from a form of lymphoma similar to the cancer Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester battled.
Friday's quarterfinal match against Serbia added an on-court element to the dramatics, as the American men came back from a two-sets-to-one deficit to win 20-25, 25-23, 21-25, 25-18, 15-12 to advance to the semifinals against Russia.
"That's probably the biggest match of my Olympic tenure, which stretches over a decade," U.S. setter Lloy Ball said. "A knockout match, to be down 2-1 ... just to find a way to win, I can't say enough about these 12 guys. These two weeks have been unbelievable.
"It makes what we do insignificant. But at the same token it also makes us appreciate what we have. And to give less than 100 percent would be a disservice to all those people."
Ball and his teammates didn't let down Friday, despite facing dire circumstances more than once.
After losing the third set, the U.S. team was on the verge of an anti-climactic ending that wouldn't have seemed fitting for such an emotional tournament.
But McCutcheon stressed to his team to think in terms of the small picture, as difficult as that was at the moment.
"The thing that Hugh stresses to us is that we don't need great plays, we need a string of good plays," said outside hitter Reid Priddy, whose three aces and 14 kills seemed to come at the most opportune times for the U.S. "In the beginning of that match, we were all so wrapped up in thinking we needed to do something spectacular to stop this team.
"I remember Lloy saying not to think beyond the (present). That's being human, and you just have to release those thoughts and just move on to the next point."
The U.S. managed to pull away from Serbia in the fourth set, only find itself even closer to elimination in the middle of the fifth set.
Trailing 5-4, the U.S. was on the wrong end of a bad call when a Priddy spike attempt went out of bounds off the hand of a Serbian blocker. The officials said they saw no touch, and the Serbians got the point. They then extended the lead to 7-4 when Clay Stanley's attack went wide, forcing the U.S. to call a timeout.
After a calming message from McCutcheon, the U.S. ran off three straight points to tie the set at 7-7. The set was tied again at 10-10 before the Americans got two kills from Stanley and a double block from Stanley and Ryan Millar to take a 13-10 lead.
The match-clinching points came courtesy of Riley Salmon kills, and the outside hitter leapt into the arms of libero Rich Lambourne to celebrate one of the biggest wins in U.S. volleyball history.
"I was just glad that I weathered the storm emotionally," Salmon said. "It was awesome for (Ball) to have the confidence to set me there. It was a huge point. Maybe the biggest point of our careers. So when he came to me, I knew I was going to put the ball down."
The U.S. men haven't medaled since the 1992 Games, and it has a chance to secure one against Russia, the second ranked team in the world. The U.S. is ranked third.
"A real important thing for us is to maybe play with a little more heart than they do, play a little bit more tactically than they do and just fight," Ball said. "Getting a team like Russia, it's tough to get a 3-0 (sweep), but we feel the longer we stay on the court, the better chance we have of winning."
Friday, the U.S. team stayed extended its match as long as it could. And the drama continues.
"I couldn't nap thinking about playing in the quarterfinal," Priddy said. "It's almost like there's more pressure in that game than there is in a semifinal or final. Because you lose and you go home, there's no chance for a medal.
"I'd be lying if I said we weren't anxious."