Coach's wife, family still at heart of U.S. volleyball's run

BEIJING -- Her e-mail popped in sometime around breakfast Friday. The U.S. men's volleyball team wasn't expecting to hear from Elisabeth McCutcheon. She told them she appreciated their efforts, that she was rooting for them.

And somewhere in Beijing, the Americans hoped the coach's wife could close her eyes and sleep.

Hugh McCutcheon calls his wife "Wizzy." It is just about the only sign of outward emotion the coach reveals. His team upset the Russians on Friday afternoon to make Sunday's gold-medal match, and all he could muster up was a slight smirk as he waited to shake hands. He is savoring this improbable run for the Americans. He knows how important it is to the 30-somethings on this team who have never touched an Olympic medal.

But these days, McCutcheon's thoughts bounce between Capital Gymnasium and to Wizzy, their home in Minnesota and what awaits him Monday when the Olympics are over.

"One of the reasons I'm here," McCutcheon said, "is that I know so many more lives are invested in this than just my own.

"This is wonderful for our team and for our organization. It's a fantastic achievement, and I'll embrace it and enjoy it. But as soon as we're done, I have to get back to where I'm needed, which is with my family."

Two weeks ago, they were 12 men and one coach consumed with finally winning. On Aug. 9, the day after the Opening Ceremony, Elisabeth and her parents were sightseeing when a knife-wielding attacker murdered her father and seriously injured her mother and their tour guide. Thirteen days of bedside vigils and hesitant goodbyes have followed.

Elisabeth's mother, Barbara Bachman, was eventually transported back home to Minnesota, but is still in the hospital. Now, a grieving wife and a coach are separated, pulled in two directions. He calls Wizzy three times a day, more if she needs it. Sometime late Thursday in the States, she reached out to the team that has put together a surprising 7-0 run in the Olympics.

"This is kind of what we can do," U.S. libero Richard Lambourne said. "If it helps them in any sort of way at all, then that makes us feel good."

The Americans haven't medaled in men's volleyball since Barcelona in 1992. Their last gold-medal match took place in Seoul in '88. They are not the buzz of Beijing. Their setter is a 36-year-old whom McCutcheon says was a risk to bring to the '08 Games because the Americans didn't medal with him for three straight Olympics. Their championship match will be played at midnight ET Sunday morning.

But setter Lloy Ball and his teammates jumped out to a two-game lead Friday afternoon. The U.S. didn't panic when the Russians tied it and the arena got progressively louder. David Lee rallied the U.S. from a 7-5 deficit in the fifth game, and set up match point with a booming spike off a quick set.

When their final shot hit the floor, and the Americans sealed a 25-22, 25-21, 25-27, 22-25, 15-13 win, they danced and mobbed each other while McCutcheon passively watched.

"I'm a fairly reserved person," he said. "I don't wear my heart on my sleeve. I wanted to shake the coach's hand because it was a hell of a match. That was it. And [then] I wanted to go meet the guys and celebrate with them. I'm not going to run around like a headless chicken. That's just not me."

None of the players lingering in front of the media gate late Friday afternoon could remember the last time the U.S. beat Russia in an important match. There was a time in 2004 when the Americans won a friendly match in Texas just before the Athens Games, hitter Riley Salmon said.

Sometime in Beijing, he said, the Americans came together. They practiced with the belief that they could medal, he said. Then the events of Aug. 9 pulled them even tighter.

"I didn't want to quit today," Salmon said. "When I needed a little bit of energy, I just thought about my family, thought about everybody else's family that's here."

McCutcheon briefly left the team after the stabbing, but his family eventually decided he needed to be here. On Friday morning, he told the Americans -- many of whom come from the West Coast -- that the hay was in the barn and all they needed to do was go play. Everyone understood what McCutcheon meant.

"He's an incredible guy," Lambourne said. "I've learned a tremendous amount about being a human being from him over the last four years.

"I'm not sure we could do it without him back."

For two more days, the McCutcheons will wait. Hugh didn't know if Wizzy was watching from Minnesota late Thursday night. He didn't know if it would bring any comfort.

"I hope they were sleeping," he said. "Because Lord knows they've been having a hard time doing it."

Elizabeth Merrill writes for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.