Aaron Russell doesn't seem to mind his role with the U.S. men's national volleyball team, whether he starts or comes off the bench. He's thrived in both roles and Sunday was another example as he helped power the U.S. past Brazil, 25-21, 28-26, 28-26, in the bronze medal game of the FIVB Volleyball Nations League Super Final in Lille, France.
"At the beginning of the finals, it was a bit different for me because, even in college or in professional, I had not been a bench player until yesterday," Russell said. "So coming off the bench was a little bit difficult for me. I have a lot more respect for the bench players. I know the guys trusted me; I was able to come back and produce a little more."
The Americans (13-6, 2-2) looked anything but disappointed in not being able to play for the title after losing in heart-breaking fashion to the French on Saturday.
"I think it's very difficult to play a bronze medal match when you've had such a disappointing semifinal," U.S. coach John Speraw said. "Unfortunately, we've been there a couple of times. So I was really proud of our guys for coming back and being emotionally engaged. I'm very pleased with the way we competed."
Brazil was one of the teams that beat the U.S. during the regular season and had downed the Americans in six of their seven previous meetings. The U.S. blocked the Brazilians attempt to finish among the top three for the 31st time in 34 world-level tournaments.
Russell led the U.S. with 14 points on 13 kills and a service ace. Matthew Anderson added 13 points on 11 kills and two aces. Taylor Sander also reached double figures with 11 points on nine kills and two blocks.
"I think some of the young guys on the team gained valuable experience all the way through VNL, and will be exceptional players in the future," Speraw said. "We learned a lot, we know what we need to work on. That team that we've had on the floor is an experienced one and very capable of winning medals, hopefully of a different color next time. I am happy with the direction we're going."
The U.S. also took 28 points on Brazil errors and made just 26 of its own, a comforting stat in the wake of a major sore spot during VNL competition.
The U.S. will continue preparations for the FIVB World Championships in Italy and Bulgaria in September.
"Our goal is to win the gold medal at the World Championship," Russell said. "I think we're definitely capable of doing it. It will be nice to have a little time to focus on some stuff and train, but right now I’m just looking to put my legs up and relax a little bit."
Russia upset the host French to win the VNL overall title.
In related news, the FIVB announced that the U.S. will host the next three editions of the Men’s Volleyball Nations League (VNL) Finals, from 2019-2021, ensuring the continued success of the flagship competition.
“I am delighted that the USA will host one of our biggest and most talked about events," FIVB President Ary S. Graca F said. "The USA is the biggest sports market in the world and presents significant commercial opportunities for our sport to grow and develop around the world. There are few countries that do sports presentation better than the USA, so I have no doubt they will be excellent partners for us."