The longest preseason is coming to a close. Four years, three continents and dozens of tournaments later, the U.S. Olympic women's volleyball team is in its final countdown for the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain.
Tonight at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Va., the United States takes on China in an exhibition. In four months, the matches will be for real and for gold.
"It's getting close, and it's getting exciting," said U.S. setter Lori Endicott. "We were in Barcelona last October, and you could see the city getting ready. By the time the Olympics get there, Barcelona will be a city that is packed with enthusiasm and people just eager to see all of the competition."
For now, though, the U.S. team must temper its enthusiasm and continue the hard work of preparing for a medal opportunity in Barcelona. The U.S. women won a silver medal in 1984 in Los Angeles, but finished seventh of eight teams in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea.
The team's greatest accomplishment in the past year was simply earning a spot in Barcelona. After failing to qualify in its zone championship, the United States was forced to earn a berth at the World Cup in November in Japan. Qualifying came down to the final set of the final match, against Peru.
"We were pretty nervous," Endicott said. "When it was over, there were smiles and laughs and tears. We had every kind of emotion because we had all been through so much."
For Endicott, 24, reaching the Olympics will fulfill a brash prediction she made nine years ago. As a sophomore at Willard High School in Springfield, Mo., she told her school newspaper that she would grow up to become an Olympic volleyball player by 1988.
"I didn't have any idea what it would take to make the team," Endicott said. "I guess I was a bit premature."
But after attending Nebraska, where she was a three-year starter and two-year All-American, Endicott earned a place on the U.S. national team in 1989. In the past two years, she developed into one of the world's elite setters, able to make split-second decisions to subtly create the plays that lead to the overpowering spikes.
Endicott said the United States has the ability to win a medal in Barcelona. The team is led by outside hitter Caren Kemner, voted top player at the 1990 World Cup.
Wu Dan, Li Yueming and Xu Xin are among China's top performers. But Ma Fang, voted best setter of the 1991 World Cup, provides the passing flourishes that make China a gold-medal Olympic contender.
Endicott isn't yet considered in Fang's class. But she is closing fast.
U.S. vs. China
Date and time: Tonight, 8
Site: Patriot Center, Fairfax, Va.
Tickets: $9.50, $12.50 and $5.50, available at Patriot Center box office.