Tokyo, Japan, May 22, 2016 - A raucous home crowd has lifted Japan to a gripping 3-2 (20-25, 25-13, 21-25, 32-30, 15-11) win over Netherlands on the final night of the Women’s Olympic Qualification Tournament in Tokyo.
Both teams could well have been forgiven for hanging their hats back on the peg after locking up Rio spots 24 hours earlier, but instead opted to slug out a five-set epic which left fans almost as exhausted as the players themselves.
It might have been a dead rubber, but it didn’t stop the Japanese fans once again packing the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium to cheers on their Olympic-bound team.
Both teams had found out 24 hours they were Rio bound, making it difficult to lift for one last game after a long, high-pressure week of volleyball.
The Dutch looked the more switched on, controlling the set from the opening, with Lonneke Sloetjes and Celeste Plak providing a power combination that would strike fear in most teams in the world.
Japan rallied late to make the score more respectable, but The Netherlands was never in any real danger of dropping the set once it led 15-7, eventually triumphing 25-20.
The second set could not have been more of a contrast. Japan dominated, helped in no small part by an error-riddled Dutch team (18 to 6 after two sets) and another strong leadership game from captain Saori Kimura (nine points).
Sloetjes was continuing to lead the way for the Netherlands, taking her personal points tally to 13, but the Dutch were struggling in the second; trailing 8-16, 11-22 and eventually 13-25.
One of the exciting aspects of an event such as this one is seeing all the exciting young talent coming through the ranks. The Netherlands’ Celeste Plak is one such player.
Twenty-years-old and with a swinging left arm that could knock over a cement statue, Plak has played second fiddle to Sloetjes all week, but when called upon can turn a game.
She was proving important against Japan, picking up 11 points, including three blocks, as well as several important digs.
Somehow The Netherlands managed to win the third set 25-21, despite a mounting error count (22-14 after three sets).
Sloetjes was up to 19 points, while Kimura on 12 and Miyu Nagaoka on 11 were doing best for the home team.
Japan’s volleyball-hungry fans just want to watch the game, and the prospect of seeing their beloved Olympians beaten in four sets was an option they would not entertain – even when the side trailed 16-12.
There’s something about a stadium jam-packed with starry-eyed fans armed with full voices that can lift any sporting team, and in Tokyo on this balmy Sunday evening that was definitely the case.
Soon the game was locked at 18-all. Point-for-point the match pulsated, two Rio-bound teams showing no signs of battle weariness after an intense week of volleyball.
24-24, 25-25, 26-26 – first Japan throwing away set points, then the Dutch throwing away match points, until finally, at 31-30, Miyu Nagaoka rifled an ace down the middle of the court that left the Dutch sprawling and the game headed to a fifth and deciding set.
For a game that had every right to be as stale as last week’s bread, this was anything but. The fifth set continued as the fourth ended; point-for-point, a crowd baying for more, and 12 punch-drunk athletes operating off the smell of adrenalin.
The euphoria of the crowd eventually lifted the weary home team over the line against an even more fatigued Netherlands 15-11 in the fifth, and 3-2 for the match.
History will show Japan won the final game of the 2016 Women’s Olympic Qualification Tournament 3-2 over The Netherlands. What it won’t show is that despite there being nothing at stake, two teams threw themselves into a match like there was an Olympic gold medal up for grabs.