By Robert Weinstock
SOFIA, Bulgaria – Japan ended the U.S. Women’s Volleyball Team’s quest for Deaflympic gold by winning 3-1 in a stunning semifinal match Thursday at Arena Armeec Sofia.
“Defense wins championships,” head coach Lynn Ray Boren often says, and Thursday’s game proved him right once again as Japan played almost flawless defense to trip up the Americans, 29-27, 30-32, 21-25, 22-25.
The first set saw several ties and lead changes. Japan charged back from a 24-21 deficit to tie the set, and the teams traded points until the score was 27-27. Kristina Burke served the final two points, with a service ace to end the set.
In the second set, Japan took an early lead, and at 20-23 was poised to wrap it up until Kelly Kyle delivered a kill and a service ace, and Katelyn Reese and Ludmila Mounty-Weinstock blocked a Japan hit to tie the set at 23-23. After that point, the teams alternated points to 30-30, when Japan scored two points, the last coming on a Mounty-Weinstock block error.
With the score tied 13-13 in the third set, Japan racked up eight straight points, and the U.S. responded with five to narrow the gap to 21-18 but was unable to maintain its momentum against the stifling Japan defense, losing 25-21.
The final set started much like the third, with Japan taking a 15-10 lead, the U.S. knotting the score, and Japan holding the rest of the way to a 25-22 win.
The match was “fun to watch,” Boren said, and indeed it was, with huge hits on both sides, a great deal of net action, sparkling defense, and some of the longest and most drama-filled volleys of the entire competition.
Outside hitter Kelly Kyle, the team’s go-to person for sensational hits, had 15 kills and eight errors. She finished with a total of 73 touches and a 10 percent attack rate, her lowest in the Deaflympics.
The story was similar for Kristina Burke, who had nine kills, and Jessica Israel and Katelyn Reese, with eight each, but all three saw diminished attack percentages. Japan used relentless defensive play to hold the U.S. to an overall 17 percent attack rate.
Kyle had four service aces, but the team committed nine service errors. Pia Marie Paulone and Sarah Tubert, sharing setter duties, each had 20 assists.
On defense, Kyle had 26 digs; Kristina Burke, 23; and Payton Brown, 11. Kyle had the team’s only block solo. Ludmila Mounty-Weinstock had eight block assists, followed by Israel with seven and Reese with six, but Mounty-Weinstock and Reese also had seven block errors apiece.
Boren said he was proud of the team for its hard work and that they would regroup and prepare for the bronze-medal match against Russia at 1 p.m. (6 a.m. ET) Saturday.
The U.S. defeated Russia in a tough pool match last Friday, 3-1.
Japan gets another shot at Ukraine – to which it lost in pool play – at 5 p.m. (10 a.m. ET) Saturday.