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Volleyball warm-up games help groom squad for Olympics
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On a great run by sweeping past old nemesis Cuba six times in a row in women's volleyball friendly series over the past fortnight, Olympic champions China has started to groom a competitive squad and pick up confidence for the Beijing Olympics in August.

Most spotlight came to newly returned middle blocker Zhao Ruirui and setter Feng Kun, both of whom have just recovered from knee injuries.

The duo, together with Yang Hao, Zhou Suhong, Liu Ya'nan and Zhang Na, are the only players in the current team with Olympic experience.

"I feel relieved to see them fully fit again and back to my squad," said head coach Chen Zhonghe before the six-game friendly series began in Fuzhou, capital of southeast China's Fujian Province on Feb. 24.

"Feng and Zhao recovered well from the surgeries. Feng is able to play 80 percent of her champion-winning level and Zhao at 90 percent."

However, their form demonstrated in the matches gave a lot more convincing evidence on their fitness than in Chen's words.

Zhao started five times in the series, and Feng, captain of the team, started four times.

The 1.97 meters Zhao is one of the team's leading scorer averaging 9.6 points, arousing trouble in Cuba's strong defense while Feng is getting involved in the team's offense, creating more chances for the spikers.

The main concern might be that Zhao and Feng will both have to spend extra time getting to know the new faces on the team.

"Zhao played a good match, especially in smashing and blocking," Chen said of his favorite after the series ended in Hangzhou, capital of east China's Zhejiang Province.

"But there are problems on teamwork and cooperation. We recruited many new faces in the side and definitely they need time and competition to know them better and get involved in the team.

"I believe Feng still get room to improve, she could feed more threatening chances for the attacking line if she is 100 percent OK."

Wang Yimei, 20, has emerged as the most deadly weapon of the team after Olympic-winning veterans Wang Lina and Zhang Yuehong retired.

"Wang played pretty well. She finds rhythm in the match, she finds way to score, and nobody is gonna stop her. Wang now can be labeled as one of the most powerful spikers in the world," a beaming Chen said, noting that the 1.90 meters, 90 kilograms girl has also improved in blocking and backcourt defense.

Chen gave many chances to Wang in the past few years, and his efforts finally paid off in a team going through transition.

Veteran Yang Hao is expected to line up with Wang in attacking. As leading scorer of Chen's squad in Athens and World Cup event, the 28-year-old witnessed a little bit slide from her summit form but still proved to be a harsh test for any blocking on net in the Cuba series.

Yang's main competitor Li Juan, two years Yang's junior, also hit top gear in the warm-up series, and was given all thumbs up by Chen.

"We have yet to decide upon the final squad for the Beijing Olympics, which is expected to come out till the eve of the Games, " said Chen, "The veterans are recovering from their injuries while the rookies still stand chance of being selected."

But it is definitely sure that the starting line-up in the series against Cuba will not be changed unless they are sidelined again by injuries.

"I have never imagined that I was able to play this well after four years' absence," Zhao said.

"I have sustained a lot of injuries besides my fragile knee, I have to pray to stay fit before the Olympics. I could not afford to miss another Olympics yet again."

The baby-faced girl was injured in a match prior to the 2004 Olympic Games.

Her injury became even worse in her first Olympic match against the United States, and Zhao was then sidelined from the rest of the matches in Athens, where the Chinese women's volleyball team re-claimed the Olympic title after a 20-year wait.

One of Chen's concerns is laid on the choice of libero. Zhang Xian, current starter of the place, pulled off a consistent performance in the series, but in Chen's eyes, the 23-year-old is still dwarfed by top-level Zhang Na in Athens.

The 28-year-old Zhang Na is drafted in Chen's training camp, but has to nurse her injury first.

"I hope they can adjust to their best form as soon as possible. These players are the best in China. I am looking forward to seeing them play again at the Beijing Olympic Games," said Chen.

Currently there are a total of 19 players in the Chinese side out of which only 12 can make the final roster for the Beijing Olympics.

(Xinhua News Agency March 6, 2008)

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