Trailing 0-2 to Russia with zero momentum working in its favor, the U.S. stormed back to win the next three sets (23-25, 21-25, 25-19, 25-19, 15-13.) and leave the Maracanãzinho arena as Olympic medalists. The bronze was the first medal won by U.S. men's volleyball since taking the gold medal in Beijing in 2008.
"It wasn't the storybook ending like we all planned for and wanted, but this is a great honor to be coming home with an Olympic medal and we're going to wear it proudly," said setter Micah Christenson.
Host Brazil — which lost to the Americans earlier in the tournament — swept Italy (25-22, 28-26, 26-24) to win the gold medal, with the Italians taking the silver.
Turns out, it was a member of the old guard who rallied the U.S. — a team with eight first-time Olympians — to bronze. Reid Priddy, the 38-year-old four-time Olympic veteran coming off two knee surgeries, needed to provide a spark that wasn't needed the first seven matches of the tournament. Priddy replaced outside hitter Aaron Russell in the second set and never showed a reason to come out. He scored 18 points in the final four sets.
Priddy scored four points in the fifth and final set, none bigger than the spike that broke the 9-9 deadlock. The Russians would never recover. Captain David Lee followed with a spike. Matt Anderson, who led all Americans with 21 points, had an ace. Christenson's spike put the U.S. at match point, 14-11.
It was there the Russians tried to wiggle their way back into it. A point away from taking the final set to overtime, Anderson ensured Russia's run would stop there. The 6-foot-9 outside hitter delivered the final spike of the match to seal bronze, 15-13.
The Americans fell into a dog pile on their side of the court.
Sander, the former BYU All-American from Huntington Beach, Calif., grew up watching and idolizing the galvanizing force behind the bronze-medal victory.
"[Priddy] brought it, and that's cool to be a part of," Sander said.
The semifinal loss to Italy will always haunt this group — evidenced as much when Sander attributed the 0-2 start Sunday to the lingering emotional letdown — but the former Cougar said he's already looking forward. The future of U.S. men's volleyball is bright, he said. But he can finally relax, something he is understandably eager to do.
"So glad that this tournament's over," he said laughing. "It's been tough, but we all learned so much from it. We have a lot of young guys. It's awesome to be able to take from this experience and apply it into our lives and careers."