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Air Force Wins Men's Volleyball Championships

By John Okonski
Special to American Forces Press Service

LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas, May 12, 1999 – The 1999 Armed Forces Men's Volleyball Championships here May 4-7 produced a new champion in an unexpected way -- an Army victory over Navy lifted Air Force to its third title in four years.

The Air Force squad, which previously held the crown in 1997 and 1996, ended the round-robin tourney with a 5-1 record. Navy placed second at 4-2 while Army finished 3-3. The Marines held on to last place with a 0-6 mark.

"All things good come to those who wait" appeared to be the catchwords of the tourney. Although Navy looked every bit the favorites with all 10 players returning to defend their 1998 title, Air Force assembled a squad that balanced experience and age. Coaching also played a key role, which spelled the difference between victory and defeat.

"Defense, defense, defense," noted Malu Sagiao, Air Force coach from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., as the vital ingredient to the Air Force victory. "It was a matter of adjusting. We changed our defensive and blocking strategy to find the right combination."

Indeed, when the Air Force spikers played their first match May 5 against the veteran Navy crew, things didn't go well at all. The seamen cruised in the first two games and easily controlled an error-prone Air Force squad, 15-6 and 15-1.

"From the beginning of the match, we couldn't get a consistent lineup," said George Egan, assistant Air Force coach. "We kept on changing our lineup to see which one would finally pull things together."

It appeared to work in Game 3. Air Force sank Navy 15-8 by reeling off 12 straight points with key defensive plays by John Napier, Los Angeles AFB, Calif., and Marshall Green, Kelly AFB, Texas, and offensive punches from setter Ken Mercier, Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, and outside hitters Ryan Turner, Los Angeles AFB, and Paul Larger, Air Force Academy, Colo. That momentum carried into Game 4 as Air Force tied the match, 15-7.

"I didn't counter their substitutions in Game 3, and that cost us," explained Dan Cabral, Navy coach from North Island, Calif.

Air Force, though, couldn't keep the afterburners flaming in the fifth and deciding game. Under rally scoring rules, Navy took a quick 4-0 lead and never looked back as they prevailed, 15-7.

In the final match of Day 1, a more experienced Air Force squad faced an unexpectedly tough Army team. The battle raged two hours as the teams split wins in the first four games. However, the Air Force finally closed out the rally match, 15-10.

After the first day's competition, Navy established itself to repeat as all-services champions. They were 2-0 following an easy three-game win against the Marines. The Air Force and Army teams stood at 1-1 with the Marines 0-2.

Day 2 contests opened with Army taking on Navy. In what proved to be a pivotal match, a determined Army team fought Navy for 2 and one-half hours before losing in four games. Army netters, led by outside hitters Juan Monge-Velasquez, Fort Bliss, Texas, and Carins Beattie, Fort Buckner, Okinawa, nearly pulled off the upset of the tourney.

Lasting more than an hour, the first two games went to the wire each time. Navy took Game 1, 16-14, while Army came back with an exciting 17-16 win in Game 2. The champions bounced back with wins in games three and four.

"We knew the Army would be tough," said Steve Murray, assistant Navy coach assigned to the USS Bataan, Norfolk, Va. "After our win over the Air Force the day before, we didn't want to think beyond our next match against the Army." That thinking was on target, but the grueling and tiring marathon match would take its toll on Navy later in the day.

Air Force spikers, meanwhile, came back from Day 1's disappointing loss to Navy. They quickly dispatched the Marines in three straight games.

The anticipated marquee rematch on Day 2 between Air Force and Navy proved as exciting as their first contest. This time, however, Air Force was energized by having beaten the Marines.

Air Force scored the first four points of Game 1 and took it, 15-12. Navy came back in Game 2, 15-9, with Air Force taking Game 3, 15-12. Scoring in Game 4 went back and forth as both teams fought hard for each point. The Texas heat slowly drained the energy from both teams.

Air Force's Larger took himself out with cramps, forcing Sagiao to substitute more frequently. With the score tied at 14 and Air Force serving, Navy's starting middle blocker, Thomas Kait of the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif., got tangled with two teammates as they dove for the ball. Kait rolled over in pain and was carried off the court with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Despite this setback, Navy won 16-14.

The deciding fifth game was another hotly contested struggle. Playing without Larger, Sagiao continued moving Sammy Nimchaimanathan, Hurlburt Field, Fla., and Napier in and out of the lineup.

With Navy holding a 4-3 lead, starting swingman Jeffrey Ernsberger, Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Va., went down with stomach cramps. The Navy maintained its composure as the score seesawed until they built up a three-point edge, 12-9.

Air Force took the serve and cut the lead to 11-12. Sagiao made a defensive move by bringing in Napier, and Air Force tied the score. After both teams scored again, Sagiao sent Green in for middle blocker John Kara, Mountain Home AFB. Air Force took the serve, the final two points and the match.

The win by Air Force suddenly threw the destiny of the tournament into the hands of Army. Friday's competition had Army playing back-to-back matches against Air Force and Navy. Despite having lost to both teams earlier, the Army's strong play both times was a confidence builder. If Army could pull off two wins, a three-way tie loomed large.

The first crucial match for Army against Air Force started out as planned -- almost. Air Force's win over Navy, though, also boosted their competitiveness. A charged-up Air Force team prevailed in a tight first game, 16-14, and then halted the Army altogether, 15-7 and 15-6.

Earlier, Navy had kept the three-way tie scenario alive with an easy second win over the Marines, 15-5, 15-1 and 15-6. Despite its loss to Air Force, Army entered its final match, against Navy, still holding the trump card to determine who would win the 1999 championships.

Unfortunately for Navy, time ran out. Injuries had torpedoed the ship and the Army scuttled it quickly in three straight, 15-11, 15-12 and 15-12. The Army win left the Air Force alone on top.

The tournament men's all-star team includes Larger, Mercier and Napier and Beattie. Also competing for a spot on the U.S. team for the Conseil International du Sport Militaire's second Military World Games Aug. 5-18 in Zagreb, Croatia, are:

  • Air Force -- Turner, Green, and Michael Goldbaugh, Elmendorf AFB, Alaska.
  • Navy -- Ernsberger, Christian Fassari, Camp Pendleton, Calif., and David Foster, North Island, Calif.
  • Army -- Monge-Velasquez, Tausala Faamausilli, Fort Lewis, Wash., Richard Hudson, Fort Carson, Colo., and Jason Janda, Giessen, Germany .
  • Marine Corps -- Sean Pittman of Newton, Iowa.

In honor of his outstanding play, the coaches and service representatives also named Kait to the CISM team although his injury will prevent him from competing. Sagiao and Egan were named team coaches.

[John Okonski works in the Lackland Air Force Base Public Affairs Office.]

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAir Force setter Sammy Nimchaimanathan, in the air, sets up a return. Middle blocker John Napier, left, keeps an eye on the ball during the first match against the Navy at the 1999 Armed Forces Men's Volleyball Championships. Navy blockers, from right, Jeffrey Ernsberger, Christian Fassari and Scott Ruston await the return. Robbin Cresswell   
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageAir Force's Michael Goldbaugh spikes the ball against Navy blockers Thomas Kait and Scott Ruston during their first match at the 1999 Armed Forces Men's Volleyball Championships. From right, Air Force players Paul Larger, Marshall Green and John Napier look on. Robbin Cresswell  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy tournament all-star Carins Beattie leaps to hit the ball over Marine blocker Nick Ludwig in an opening-day match of the 1999 Armed Forces Men's Volleyball Championships. Looking on, from left, are Army players Richard Hudson and Jason Janda, and Marines Sean Pittman and Harold Tew. Robbin Cresswell  
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