LONDON - Before 2008 in Beijing, the U.S. men's volleyball team had not won an Olympic gold medal since 1988. Hugh McCutcheon, in his first Olympics as a head coach, led the U.S. to the championship.
The U.S. women's volleyball team never has won a gold. McCutcheon, the incoming Gophers volleyball coach, is trying to become the first coach ever to lead the U.S. women to a championship, and only the second coach in history to win Olympic gold with a men's and women's volleyball team.
The U.S. will face the Dominican Republic on Tuesday in the quarterfinals of the Olympic tournament, and suddenly a team that never has won gold is the prohibitive favorite to do so.
In the past two years, under McCutcheon's guidance, the women's team has vaulted past Brazil to No. 1 in the world, by a wide margin. After losing the gold medal game to Brazil in Beijing, the U.S. women have beaten Brazil in all four of their meetings this year, including earlier in this tournament.
The Dominican Republic is riding a four-game losing streak and is not expected to challenge the U.S. But when discussing the men's gold, McCutcheon spoke of the difficulty that faces even a great team in a single-elimination tournament.
"We won gold in Beijing, and you go back through the games, and one point here or there and we wouldn't have won anything,'' he said before the Olympics began. "The margin between a championship and what might be considered a failure is very thin.''
That has changed for the women's team this year. It has yet to be challenged.
"Any time we step on the floor we want to send a message to the other teams and to ourselves that we believe in ourselves,'' said former Gopher Lindsey Berg, the team captain and setter. "It's incredible, playing with this team.''
Perhaps the only setback the U.S. team has experienced occurred Sunday, when Berg injured her ankle and left the floor. She limped while shaking hands at the end of the match, but told reporters she didn't believe the injury was serious.
"I'm OK,'' she said. "I felt it was something that wasn't worth pushing through.''