Monday, June 20, 2016

National Team | USA women passing less than perfect

USA adds three more World Grand Prix wins, but serve receive a sticking point; Pac-12 schedule is released

  • June 10 | Ningbo, China | USA def. Germany 3-0 (25-15, 25-17, 25-12)
  • June 11 | Ningbo, China | USA def. Thailand 3-0 (25-21, 29-27, 25-23)
  • June 12 | Ningbo, China | China def. USA 3-1 (25-20, 25-19, 15-25, 25-23)
  • June 17 | Long Beach, CA | USA def. Germany 3-1 (25-17. 24-26, 25-10, 25-23)
  • June 18 | Long Beach, CA | USA def. Japan 3-0 (25-16, 25-23, 25-21)
  • June 19 | Long Beach, CA | USA def. Turkey 3-0 (25-21, 25-20, 25-16)
  • June 24 | Hong Kong | USA vs. Germany | 3:30AM (Pacific)
  • June 24 | Hong Kong | USA vs. Netherlands | 10:15PM (Pacific)
  • June 26 | Hong Kong | USA @ China | 12:45AM (Pacific)

USA outside hitter Kelsey Robinson had an off night
passing against Turkey
-photo by FIVB
Tens of thousands of kids and teens will soon be heading to summer volleyball camps all around the country. Among the first skills they’ll practice is passing. And for most newcomers, nothing could be more boring.

Turns out—as most coaches will tell you—passing may be volleyball’s most important skill. With just weeks before the start of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, USA’s Women’s National Team will likely be practicing passing just as much as those summer camp kids.

Last night in Long Beach, USA struggled to a 3-0 (25-21, 25-20, 25-16) win over Turkey, bringing the Americans’ record to 5-1 in the month-long 2016 World Grand Prix. Throughout the match, sloppy passing all but nullified USA’s considerable age and experience. Here are a few observations about the World Grand Prix’s second weekend:


When we talk about poor passing, we’re talking about outside hitters, the players responsible for all but a handful of serve receptions. 33 of Turkey’s serves were directed at Kelsey Robinson, who was aced only once, but sent her setters scrambling on 14 poor passes. The other two serve receivers—outside hitter Jordan Larson and libero Kayla Banwarth—had perfect passes on all but two attempts each.

Robinson is a generally solid player, but has a tendency to shrink under pressure. Against Turkey, she had 12 kills and 3 errors in 26 attempts, respectable numbers (bolstered, frankly, by Larson’s great passing.) But on many occasions, Robinson tips (often unconvincingly) when she might be better attacking opponents’ hands for a tool attempt. She too often sends across maddeningly easy free balls in situations where she could jump and swing instead.

Larson had a solid weekend, and will clearly be USA’s top outside in Rio. The OH2 will be Kim Hill, who sometimes has passing issues of her own, but is a far more dominant hitter and blocker than Robinson. That’s a strong duo, and USA may not have to dig any deeper against top tier Olympic opponents in Rio.

That said, Robinson has probably locked up the third outside spot on the Rio roster, leaving questions about a fourth Olympic OH. In two weekends of Grand Prix play, head coach Karch Kiraly has included 3 outside hitters and 3 setters on his 14-player roster; the norm is 4 and 2, respectively. As USA heads to Hong Kong for the third preliminary round this weekend, look to see whether Kiraly includes Megan Easy this time. Easy is a spectacular hitter whose Achilles heel has been … passing.


USA middle blocker Rachael Adams had a
big weekend in Long Beach
-photo by FIVB
Rachael Adams has rarely been in USA’s middle blocker conversation this quad, but now seemed poised to grab the MB3 slot in Rio. With Foluke Akinradewo and Christa Dietzen the obvious top two, Adams has had a marvelous Grand Prix so far. She’s mature and disciplined, and has shown all the physical tools necessary to beat out Lauren Gibbemeyer and Lauren Paolini for Rio’s third middle roster spot.

The Turkey match was the first time in six Grand Prix contests that veteran opposite Nicole Fawcett has been in the lineup. As usual, she excelled. That’s no surprise to those who’ve been watching the three-way battle between Fawcett, Karsta Lowe and Kelly Murphy for what may be just two opposite positions in Rio. More than once, we’ve wondered whether Kiraly might take three opposites and three outsides instead of the usual 4 and 2.


At age 31, setter Courtney Thompson is the senior member of the Women’s National Team. The former Washington All-American has spent much of the past decade exceeding expectations, which includes overcoming naysayers who think her Olympic days are behind her.

USA setter Courtney Thompson serves against
Germany at the World Grand Prix
-photo by FIVB
If Alicia Glass stays healthy, Glass will surely secure one of two setter spots in Rio. Throughout this year’s Grand Prix, Kiraly has given Carli Lloyd a long look as both a starter (in last week’s loss to China) and as the primary double-substitution setter in rotations 9, 10 & 11. The question remains: is Lloyd—who has little National Team experience—the standby in case Glass can’t go to Rio? Or is she competing against Thompson for the number two slot?

Frankly, only Kiraly and his staff know the answer. But Thompson is an extraordinary asset, the emotional leader of the team, whether or not she’s in the lineup. She has Olympic experience—and played the entire match in an elimination round victory in London in 2012. She’s also just spent a year leading Rio’s top professional team to the Brazilian championship, so she knows Rio and Brazil’s Olympians as well as anyone. In case you haven’t heard, Thompson was wildly popular with Rio’s sophisticated volleyball fans—the home arena echoed with chants of “USA! USA!” each time she approached the service line.

The 12 athletes on the Rio roster will likely be named in the next 10 days or so. Don’t count out Courtney Thompson.

  • Be sure to check out last weekend’s New York Times’ profile, Karch Kiraly now setting up US Women’s volleyball team to succeed. If you’ve seen our documentary, Court & Spark, you’ll recognize several items first reported in that film. The article includes quotes from three of those featured in Court & Spark, Kiraly, Courtney Thompson, and Marv Dunphy. And a heads-up … Court & Spark will soon be available on major streaming services.
  • The size of the crowds at Long Beach State’s Pyramid Arena fluctuated wildly over the weekend, from full-to-the-rafters Saturday night to rattling-around-an-vacant-pavilion Sunday. Yesterday’s embarrassing emptiness may have been a confluence of triple-digit temperatures outside and competition from the NBA Finals Game 7. But it also raises questions about lost opportunities playing so many matches this quad in Southern California. We’re looking at you, University of Washington and Seattle Sports Commission. Remember that sold-out 2013 NCAA Final Four in Seattle? It’s time to place a few calls to sponsor USA Volleyball exhibitions and FIVB tournaments for the next quad, when former UW star Krista Vansant will be in the mix for the 2020 Olympic roster in Tokyo.
  • The USA/Turkey match was the first time in six contests that NBC Sports’ streaming broadcast included commentators. Former Olympian Paul Sunderland was, as usual, highly entertaining and opinionated. Former Stanford coach Don Shaw did fine, though Sunderland’s usual partner, Kevin Barnett, invariably adds better insight. Sadly, too few FIVB matches include commentary, a real hurdle to volleyball’s appeal to a larger audience.
  • The Pac-12 released its 2016 volleyball schedule. The big headline for Washington: its second conference match is at USC, and its third is home against Stanford. Thanks to the Pac-12’s unbalanced schedule, Washington fans will not see USC at Alaska Airlines Arena this season. The Huskies play four Wednesday conference matches and six Sunday matches, two days of the week that have traditionally drawn small crowds, particularly when the Seahawks are on television. In one stretch, UW plays three road matches in six nights, and four in eight.

8/27       @ James Madison            Harrisonburg, VA
8/28       vs. American University   Harrisonburg, VA
9/1         @ Seattle U
9/2         Idaho
9/2         Villanova
9/9         vs. Utah Valley                  Honolulu
9/10       vs. Northern Illinois          Honolulu
9/11       @ Hawai’i                          Honolulu
9/15       vs. Maryland                      Los Angeles
9/16       vs. Oklahoma                     Los Angeles
9/21       Washington St
9/23       @ USC
9/28       Stanford
9/29       California
10/7       @ Oregon
10/9       @ Oregon St
10/14     Utah
10/16     Colorado
10/21     @ Arizona St
10/23     @ Arizona
10/26     @ Stanford
10/28     @ California
11/4       Oregon
11/6       Oregon St
11/10     Arizona
11/13     Arizona St
11/18     @ Colorado
11/20     @ Utah
11/23     UCLA
11/26     @ Washington St

Monday, January 11, 2016

Olympics | Courtney Thompson called "such a good leader" as USA qualifies for Rio Olympics

Thompson and teammates surprise a former Washington Olympian 

[UPDATED 5:00PM (Pacific), 01/11/16]

Team USA, including Courtney Thompson (front row, left) celebrate earning an Olympic bid by winning the NORCECA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Lincoln, Nebraska
-USA Volleyball

Six Olympians from 2012—Courtney Thompson (Washington), Tama Miyashiro (Washington), Jordan Larson-Burbach (Nebraska), Foluke Akinradewo (Stanford), Christa Dietzen (Penn State) and Megan Easy (Penn State)—have a chance to repeat the feat later this year in Rio. 

Five of those athletes—Thompson, Larson-Burbach, Akinradewo, Dietzen and Easy—were on the roster in Lincoln, Nebraska over the weekend as USA defeated CanadaPuerto Rico and Dominican Republic to earn the NORCECA (North and Central America) bid to the 2016 Games. The one missing Olympian—Miyashiro—was stuck in Anaheim, tied to an important doctor appointment as she rehabs an injured knee. 

But after winning the first two matches, Miyashiro's teammates decided they missed her. "The night before the last game," says USA setter (and Miyashiro's former Washington teammateCourtney Thompson, "a bunch of us in the back of the bus were talking about Tama and how we wish she were there. We decided to surprise her and fly her out (to Lincoln.) And so, we called her and said, 'Hey, pack your bags. We got your ticket. We want you out here.' It was really neat for us. We're a family, and it meant a lot for us to have her there." 

"It would have been so easy for them to think only about what they had to do in Lincoln," says Miyashiro. "But they wanted me there, too. It was very, very cool."

Carolyn Farney, Candice Lee Viring, Tama Miyashiro and Tayyiba Haneef-Park cheer on
Team USA at the NORCECA Olympic Qualifier in Lincoln, NE
-Tayyiba Haneef-Park

With Miyashiro in the stands, along with Washington alums Carolyn Farney and Candice (Lee) Vering, Thompson and Team USA swept Dominican Republic 3-0, earning the team tickets to Rio in August.  

Thompson was on the roster as USA won the World Championships in 2014 and the World Grand Prix in 2015. She was left off the roster last summer when USA failed to claim an early Olympic berth in the World Cup 

"Obviously, I was super-disappointed last summer, how things ended up," says Thompson. "This is a family. I'm competitive. I want to be part of it. It's important for me to do everything I can to be part of it." 

US National Team members play professionally in nations across the globe. Last fall, Thompson signed with Rexona-Ades of Rio de Janeiro, one of the world's premiere professional teams. Last month, she came back to Anaheim as one of 22 USA athletes seeking 14 slots on last week's Lincoln roster. As Thompson prepared to return to Anaheim from Rio, she sent a personal email to each of her USA teammates. 

"Let's do this," she wrote. 

Middle blocker Rachael Adams told the Associated Press that the email made a difference. Thompson, she remembers, told the team, "`Hey, as soon as we step into this gym when we return to California, we need to be on. We don't want to waste days trying to get comfortable with each other or trying to figure things out.'" 

"She's such a good leader," libero Natalie Hagglund told AP about Thompson. "She kind of came out right off the bat and was like, `Let's do this, we only have two weeks together, let's figure it out quickly, let's have some fun. 

"That's exactly what we did. I'm really proud of this team for being able to dominate that so quickly." 

During the NORCECA tournament, Thompson teamed with former UCLA opposite Karsta Lowe in coach Karch Kiraly's double-substitution offense. The system gives Thompson and Lowe limited playing time, but both made a huge impact. Only once did USA lose points during their three rotations per set. More typically, USA made big runs with Thompson at the controls and Lowe pounding from the right side. 

"I felt really good about how I was playing," she says. "I was really motivated to compete and be my best and do my best.  And I think I did. I was happy about that." 

Thompson is already back in Brazil, where she'll complete the rest of her pro season before making a final push to be one of two setters on the 2016 12-person roster. There are no guarantees, and there will be stiff competition from oft-injured veteran Alisha Glass and much younger Molly Kreklow. Thompson is determined to make the final cut, but says the best way to do that is to focus on helping all of her teammates. 

Courtney Thompson sets against Puerto Rico
-USA Volleyball
"Support for each other is such a big part of our team," Thompson says. "It's who we are. It's what we're about. We feel that. The reason so many of us were motivated to come back in this quad was to do it the right way, as a family. 

"That's who we fight for. We fight for something larger than us. A large part of that is each other. We hope that when people watch us, that's what we see. 'Cause that's what we feel. For sure, we lived that in these three matches." 

Saturday's NORCECA final was broadcast on NBC Sports Network and drew 10,213 fans in Lincoln's Pinnacle Bank Arena. Not many US cities could draw that kind of crowd for an international match … except, perhaps, HonoluluMinneapolis and Seattle. With former Washington All-American Krista Vansant expected to be in serious contention for a spot on the 2020 Tokyo Olympic roster, isn't it about time for the Seattle Sports Commission and the University of Washington to start preparing bids to host international matches during the next quad? 

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