Monday, July 27, 2015

National Team | What we learned from USA volleyball’s giant July

Olympic countdown begins for Washington alums Thompson, Miyashiro, Vansant and Hagglund; several USA team members coming to Seattle this weekend
  • USA def. China 3-0 (25-23, 25-19, 25-18) [USA wins 2015 World Grand Prix]

USA celebrates winning 2015 World Grand Prix championships after 3-0 win against China

Plenty of medals were slipped around USA volleyball athlete’s necks this weekend. On Saturday, former Washington All-Americans Krista Vansant and Jenna Hagglund joined one set of US National Team teammates on the Pan Am Games gold medal podium in Toronto. On Sunday, Husky Olympians Courtney Thompson and Tama Miyashiro bathed—with a different set of teammates— in the cheers of a World Grand Prix championship in Omaha.

The 26 women on those two split squads join about 3 or 4 others who are now in the running for one of 12 spots on the roster for next summer’s 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro … once USA actually nails down one of the Olympic Games bids. The first—and most important—opportunity to claim the first two Olympic invites starts next month in Japan, at the 12 team round-robin World Cup. The two teams with the records will punch the first two tickets to Rio (joining Brazil, which gets an automatic bid as host.)

[Note: many of US National Team players will be in Seattle this weekend for a foundation fundraiser. See the end of this post.]

The 14 athletes selected for the World Cup roster won’t necessarily include the final 12 selected next summer for the Olympics. But it will be close. And the just-completed tournaments offer a few clues about the chances for Washington’s four alums.


USA setter Courtney Thompson celebrates a point in a World Grand Prix win over China
At 30, Thompson is now one of the National Team’s most experienced players and is clearly one of its leaders. She was a World Grand Prix co-captain, and had a big presence throughout the four-week round-the-world tournament.

Under an offense pioneered by Hugh McCutcheon and continued by Karch Kiraly, Thompson enters each set like a baseball closer. As part of a double substitution with the starting setter and opposite, her presence keeps three hitters on the front line for nine consecutive rotations. She brings a reliable serve and a strong, confident approach to her setting.

Most of all, Thompson is a world class defender, which is one reason why she has an advantage over Molly Kreklow if Alicia Glass is able to return to the lineup. Kreklow has done a great job while Glass recovers from ankle injuries, but both Kreklow and Glass are competing for one position, while Thompson is the clear leader for the double-sub. After watching her performance, long-time television broadcaster Paul Sunderland was compelled to say, “Courtney Thompson will be in Rio. I guarantee it.”


Like Thompson, Miyashiro is a veteran of the 2012 London Olympics. Also like Thompson, she is currently a strong favorite for one of five non-starting roles on the Rio roster.

During the current quad, Kayla Banwarth clearly took the reins as USA’s libero. But after recovering from injury, Miyashiro made the most of her World Grand Prix opportunities. During her limited time on the court, she looked rejuvenated—strong, steady, full of energy. Miyashiro’s eyework has always been her strength, allowing her to be in position for balls that others miss.

In the months ahead, Miyashiro will face two challenges. One may come from former USC libero Natalie Hagglund, who did a good job with the Toronto squad at the Pan Am Games. The other may come from Kiraly’s decision whether to take three outside hitters and two liberos (as McCutcheon did in London), or four outside hitters and just one libero. The latter is a risky strategy, trading more offensive options for the security of a defensive backup in case of injury.


The breakout star of the summer has been rookie opposite Karsta Lowe, MVP of the World Grand Prix. Next in line, however, is Vansant, another rookie who has impressed at three different tournaments, including MVP of June’s Pan Am Cup in Lima (not to be confused with July’s Pan Am Games in Toronto.)

Barring injury, Jordan Larson-Burbach and Kim Hill will be two of the outside hitters on the Rio roster. Vansant is now squarely in the conversation for the third spot, though it won’t be easy. When everything is clicking, she has all the tools, including the crucial passing and serving skills needed in the international game. Vansant’s challenge may be mental; overcoming the temptation to let one bad play affect the next several points.

Megan Easy was in London, and has recently returned after becoming a new mom. Easy’s Achilles heel has always been her passing, which cost her playing time throughout the Grand Prix. Given a chance to start Sunday against a China team that rarely served her way, she had a great game, getting 11 kills and no errors on 17 swings. Vansant has an opportunity—including the outside chance that Kiraly will decide to take four outside hitters to the Olympics.


Hagglund has been getting a good, long look all summer, and continues to impress. The competition for starting setter is a real traffic jam, with Carli Lloyd also in the picture with Glass and Kreklow. In Toronto, Hagglund had the same double-sub role that Thompson had in Omaha. And just like Thompson, she excelled, often leading her team on long runs during her time in the lineup.

Hagglund might have a serious shot if Thompson should somehow become unavailable. Barring that, she has surprised a lot of folks with her focus and determination. During the five years since she turned pro, literally hundreds of setters have come out of college. That she is on the US National Team and among the top five in the depth chart is an impressive feat.


Courtney Thompson, Tama Miyashiro and Krista Vansant will be among several US National Team players in Seattle this Friday and Saturday. Their appearance is the premiere event for the Give it Back Foundation, an organization co-founded by Thompson, Miyashiro and other teammates. A Saturday event sponsored by KJ Volleyball Club is already sold out, but there are still tickets available for a Friday event sponsored by the Washington Volleyball Academy. See for registration and information.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

National Team | A double sweep as USA wins two titles, both 3-0 over Brazil

Thompson, Miyashiro part of World Grand Prix championship in Omaha; Vansant, Hagglund win Pan Am Games gold in Toronto
  • USA def. Brazil 3-0 (25-16, 25-22, 25-21) [World Grand Prix Finals]
  • USA def. Brazil 3-0 (25-22, 25-21, 28-26) [Pan Am Games Gold Medal Match]

USA players celebrate a point in a 3-0 sweep of Brazil to win the 2015 World Grand Prix championship

USA won two titles in two countries Saturday, in both cases earning 3-0 sweeps against rival Brazil.

In Omaha, setters Molly Kreklow and Courtney Thompson spread the offense about as evenly as possible in a 3-0 win over the Brazilians (25-16, 25-22, 25-21). With the win, USA (4-0) clinched the 2015 World Grand Prix championship, even as they have one match remaining, Sunday morning against China (broadcast live at 10AM Pacific on NBC.)

Thompson and Kreklow kept Brazilian defenders off-balance by securing a combined 16 kills from outside hitters Kim Hill (10) and Kelsey Robinson (6), 15 combined kills from middle blockers Foluke Akinradewo (8) and Christa Dietzen (7) and 14 combined kills from opposites Karsta Lowe (9) and Kelly Murphy (5).

USA middle blocker had 7 kills and 7 blocks in a 3-0 sweep of Brazil

“We knew it was important to serve tough,” said US head coach Karch Kiraly, who credited Dietzen and Akinradewo with helping organize the American defense each time Brazil struggled to pass. Dietzen has 7 terminations blocks in the match, while fellow middle Akinradewo had 6 soft blocks.

“Brazil plays a very similar style as we do,” said Dietzen. “As blockers, we see attacks like those in our own gym.”

In Toronto, an American roster without a single Olympic veteran faced a Brazilian team that included several Olympic champions. One of those Brazilian veterans, outside hitter Fe Garay, showed an ability to dominate the match, serving aces and attacking with power from both the front and back row.

Each time Brazil surged ahead, the American scrambled back, thanks to exceptional defense by libero Natalie Hagglund (17 digs) and an offensive explosion by opposite Nicole Fawcett (19 kills). Outside hitter Krista Vansant struggled at times, especially with her passing, but contributed 10 kills. Jenna Hagglund, entering on the double-sub, led several big runs late in each set.

In the third set, Vansant excelled late at the service line, putting USA in a position to turn away three Brazilian set points. In the end, it was another 3-0 sweep for USA (25-22, 25-21, 28-26.), and Pan Am gold around their necks.

Friday, July 24, 2015

National Team | USA overcomes big Russian hitter to go 3-0 in Grand Prix Finals

Courtney Thompson: “We had no doubt”
  • USA def. Russia 3-1 (26-24, 19-25, 25-16, 25-22) [World Grand Prix Finals third round-robin]

It was the second set, and Nataliya Goncharova was on fire. Russia’s 6-4 opposite was on her way to a match-high 25 kills on 51 swings, and had her team up 16-10. That’s when USA setter Courtney Thompson and opposite Kelly Murphy entered on the double-substitution.

USA setter Courtney Thompson celebrates a point in a 3-1 World Grand Prix Finals win over Russia

“We could be down by ten, and we’re optimistic that something good is about to happen,” said Thompson. “We had no doubt, and we love those opportunities to make big plays.”

With Thompson dishing across the line, the Americans closed to 20-17 before she and Murphy rotated out. From there, Goncharova again took over, landing 3 more kills to tie the sets at 1-1.

In the USA huddle, USA head coach Karch Kiraly made some adjustments. “We changed our blocking scheme a little to try and slow #8 (Goncharova) down,” said Kiraly. “That’s a tough thing to do. She’s a handful.”

Sure enough, Goncharova began to fade, helped in part by improved USA serving and passing. “We just made little plays,” said Thompson. “We got on ‘em serving, we got on a few runs and we were able to terminate a few balls in transition.”

USA players celebrate a point in a 3-1 World Grand Prix Finals win over Russia

In the fourth set, Russia built a 22-20 lead. Middle blocker Tori Dixon’s quick kill sent her to the line, where she served the final four points of the set, including a match-clinching service ace. That brought the USA record to 3-0 in the round-robin World Grand Prix Final, with Brazil (2-1) and China (1-2) still on the schedule.

The Russians are a tall and young team. Ultimately, it was USA’s quick tempo that made the difference. Except for the second set, sharp passing allowed setters Molly Kreklow and Thompson to go time and again to Karsta Lowe and to the middles. Foluke Akinradewo finished with 13 kills on 24 attacks; Dixon added 8 kills on 18 swings. Once again, Lowe was USA’s scoring leader, tallying 19 kills on 38 attempts and adding 3 blocks.

USA players celebrate a point in a 3-1 World Grand Prix Finals win over Russia; Tori Dixon in center

Saturday features a rare USA/Brazil doubleheader. In Omaha, the two teams square off in the fourth round-robin match of the World Grand Prix Finals. Later in the evening, their split squads—including Krista Vansant and Jenna Hagglund—play for the gold in the Pan Am Games in Toronto.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

National Team | Two more wins for USA in World Grand Prix and Pan Am Games

Miyashiro and Thompson excel in Omaha; Vansant has another big night in Toronto
  • USA def. Italy 3-1 (25-17, 25-14, 15-25, 25-18) [World Grand Prix Final Round]
  • USA def. Dominican Republic 3-1 (25-17, 22-25, 25-18, 25-22) [Pan Am Games semifinals]

USA libero Tama Miyashiro digs one of 15 balls in a 3-1 World Grand Prix victory over Italy

Former Washington All-Americans continued to excel as US National Team split squads once again picked up victories in the round-robin final round of the World Grand Prix and in the semifinals of the Pan Am Games.

In Omaha, Tama Miyashiro had 15 digs and was in an excellent serve receive groove as USA’s defense outlasted a scrappy Italian team 3-1 (25-17, 25-14, 15-25, 25-18). Christa Dietzen led the US with 13 kills. Courtney Thompson made long runs in each set of the setter/opposite double-sub, at one point connecting with Karsta Lowe for 4 straight kills.

Team USA, including Courtney Thompson (3) and Tama Miyashiro (5) celebrate a point against Italy.

Over five days of competition, each of the six World Grand Prix finalists play each other once. On Friday night, USA squares off against Russia, the only other undefeated (2-0) team in final round robin. Earlier Thursday, Russia handed Brazil its first loss of the 2015 World Grand Prix, a 3-0 pasting led by Nataliya Goncharova’s 16 kills and 8 blocks. Also Thursday, China beat Japan 3-0.

In Toronto, USA defeated Dominican Republic 3-1 (25-17, 22-25, 25-18, 25-22) in the Pan Am Games semifinals. The Americans were led by Nicole Fawcett (14 kills,) Krista Vansant (13 kills) and Rachael Adams (6 blocks.) On Friday, USA goes for the gold medal against Brazil, a 3-2 winner over Puerto Rico.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

National Team | USA wins in both Omaha and Toronto

Vansant leads the way in Pan Am Games quarterfinals; Thompson helps serve to victory in World Grand Prix final round
  • USA def. Japan 3-0 (25-12, 25-15, 25-18) [World Grand Prix final round]
  • USA def. Cuba 3-1 (25-18, 25-19, 22-25, 25-18) [Pan Am Games Quarterfinals]

USA's Courtney Thompson (3) sets Foluke Akinradewo (16) during a 3-0 World Grand Prix Final Round win over Japan

Two recent college grads—Washington’s Krista Vansant and UCLA’s Karsta Lowe—were each USA’s leading scorer in a pair of international matches in Toronto (Vansant) and Omaha (Lowe.)

Vansant led all scorers with 13 kills on 31 attacks, two blocks and one ace in a Pan Am Games quarterfinal win against Cuba 3-1 (25-18, 25-19, 22-25, 25-18). The Cubans featured a team with several talented teenagers, with one hitter just 15 years old. Washington alum Jenna Hagglund rotated in during all four sets. USA’s Kristin Hildebrand keyed several long service runs for the Americans.

USA outside hitter Krista Vansant (24) celebrates a point with teammates during a 3-1 Pan Am Games quarterfinal win against Cuba

In Omaha, both Courtney Thompson and fellow setter Molly Kreklow also had good nights at the service line, as USA overwhelmed Japan 3-0 (25-12, 25-15, 25-18). Lowe was dominant on the right side, recording 14 kills and 3 blocks. Like Thompson and Kreklow, outside hitter Kim Hill also had a big night at the service line, earning a pair of aces and launching several effective scoring streaks.

The American offense was well-distributed across front line, with Kelsey Robinson landing 8 kills on 18 attacks, and both Hill and Foluke Akinradewo each contributing 6 kills. Akinradewo added 4 blocks.

Both teams of Americans will be in action at the very same time Thursday. USA faces Dominican Republic in the Pan Am Games semifinal round, while the other half of the split squad meets Italy in the Grand Prix finals round-robin. Both matches start at 6PM (Pacific)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

National Team | Former Washington volleyball stars in US National Team spotlight this week

Thompson, Miyashiro, Vansant and Hagglund competing in World Grand Prix and Pan Am Games
USA libero Natalie Hagglund (10) encourages teammates in a 3-2 Pan Am Games loss to Brazil in Toronto

Four former Washington All-Americans—setter Courtney Thompson, libero Tama Miyashiro, outside hitter Krista Vansant and setter Jenna Hagglund—are wearing USA uniforms this week as two international competitions approach medal rounds.

Olympians Thompson and Miyashiro are with the USA squad in Omaha, one of six teams in the final round of the month-long World Grand Prix. They’ll play five matches in the next five days; all will be available for viewing via NBC’s website, with the final two matches possibly available on over-the-air broadcast (we’ll let you know.)

2015 World Grand Prix Finals | Omaha  
Wed, July 22
6:05PM (Pacific)
USA vs. Japan
Thu, July 23
6:05PM (Pacific)
USA vs. Italy
Fri, July 24
6:05PM (Pacific)
USA vs. Russia
Sat, July 25
3:00PM (Pacific)
USA vs. Brazil
Sun, July 26
1:00PM (Pacific)
USA vs. China
Vansant and Hagglund are members of the USA team in Toronto, advancing to Wednesday’s quarterfinals of the 2015 Pan Am Games. Last night, USA dropped a 3-2 (22-25, 25-21, 18-25, 25-22, 15-11) decision to Brazil, behind Vansant’s team-leading 18 kills. Hagglund had considerable playing time in the match, double-subbing with fellow setter Carli Lloyd, and occasionally staying in the rotation in the front row.

Like volleyball at every level, the USA/Brazil match was ultimately decided by serving and passing. Holding a 2-1 set lead in the fourth set, USA committed three service errors in a row, and five for the set. USA responded most of the rest of the way with easy serves right to Brazil’s libero, allowing the Brazilians to use all their attack options. At the same time, USA’s passing grew worse, ensuring that Brazil could consistently employ double and triple blocks.

In the Pan Am Games quarterfinals, USA will face Cuba Wednesday at 12:30PM (Pacific Time.) The match should be available on ESPN3.

See also: USA Women’s Volleyball Road to Rio
Part One: setters and opposites
Part Two: outside hitters and liberos
Part Three: middles


  • If you’ve been watching the Pan Am Games coverage on ESPN3, the broadcast team might have caught your attention. If gaffes make you smile, then there’s plenty to grin about with Charles Parkinson and Dorothy Franco-Reed at the microphone. Parkinson coaches men’s volleyball at Camosun College in Victoria, British Columbia. He’s been broadcasting beach and indoor volleyball for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation since 1990, and no one pronounces “libero” quite like he does (rhymes with “fibber-oh”). Franco-Reed, an ESPN volleyball freelancer, played volleyball and basketball at Alabama, where she also coached volleyball from 1989-95 (and played team handball at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.) She and Parkinson have the good grace to apologize when they repeatedly misidentify players and are confused about rotations and substitutions (particularly the setter/opposite double substitution.) Frankly, the modern international women’s volleyball game seems to baffle them both, and when you’re not laughing, you might be a bit sad. Volleyball—now the most popular team sport for high school girls in the USA (and essentially tied with basketball at the collegiate level)—hasn’t yet earned enough respect at ESPN and CBC to draw announcers with better broadcast knowledge and skills.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

National Team | USA drops 5-set thriller to China in final World Grand Prix prelim

Courtney Thompson leads team to brink of an upset on China’s home court
  • China def. USA 3-2 (22-25, 25-13, 25-22, 19-25, 15-12)

USA's Courtney Thompson sets against China during a World Grand Prix pool match in Hong Kong

It was the fifth set, USA led China 5-4. During the run of play, a China first-touch overpass broke the plane of the net, where USA middle Christa Dietzen roofed it back for an apparent point. But the referee called blocking interference, and gave the point to China. Replays showed the ball was clearly on the USA side, but coach Karch Kiraly did not call for a replay.

With Molly Kreklow rotating in for fifth-set starting setter Courtney Thompson, USA dropped the next four points, to trail 9-5. More than once, outside hitter Kelsey Robinson delivered offspeed attacks instead of hard hits. In each case, the Chinese answered with punishing kills.

Foluke Akinradewo (16), Courtney Thompson (3) and Kelly Murphy (12)
Robinson, who is among a group of 5 or 6 outside hitters with an eye on the roster for the Rio Olympics next summer, had 13 kills for the match. That was the most of any USA player … but not much for a five-set match. Middle Foluke Akinradewo finished with 12 kills; outside hitter Jordan Larson-Burbach and opposite Karsta Lowe each tallied 10.

China was the home team in Hong Kong, and cheers in the packed arena were led by the public address announcer. In that din, strong serving by Kim Hill brought the fifth set score to 11-9 China, but a Hill service error and a Robinson passing error put the score out of reach, sending the set and match to China.

Thompson, the former Washington All-American rotated in the first three sets, and started the final two. She effectively ran a quick tempo offense, and made several stellar defensive plays, including a monster dig early in the fifth set.

China (9-0 in pool play) and USA (8-1) are among six teams to qualify for next week’s World Grand Prix Finals in Omaha. USA will face Russia in the first match next week. Brazil and Italy have also qualified. The sixth team will be either Japan, Serbia or Germany.

Friday, July 17, 2015

National Team | USA Women’s Volleyball Road to Rio [Part 3]

Which players are in the running for the 12 USA women’s volleyball roster spots for the 2016 Olympic Games? Today: middle blockers

USA middle blocker Christa Dietzen
With decision time for the 2016 Rio Olympic roster roughly a year away, we’re running through the probable Rio roster candidates, and suggesting what each has to do to make the final cut.

Be sure to see our first two entries, Road to Rio (Part 1) and Road to Rio (Part 2), for a discussion of the decision process and a rundown of setters, opposites, outside hitters and liberos. Today’s post will focus on middles, maybe the deepest position in the USA gym.


2012 London Olympics
  • Foluke Akinradewo (Plantation, FL, Stanford University)
  • Christa (Harmotto) Dietzen (Hopewell, PA, Penn State University
  • Danielle Scott-Arruda (Baton Rouge, Long Beach State)

2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic candidates
  • Akinradewo
  • Dietzen
  • Tori Dixon (Burnsville, MN, University of Minnesota)
  • Lauren Gibbemeyer (St Paul, MN, University of Minnesota)
  • Lauren Paolini (Ann Arbor, University of Texas)
  • Cursty Jackson (Los Angeles, University of Arizona)
  • Rachael Adams (Cincinnati, University of Texas)

Top to bottom, middles may be the strongest position on USA’s roster. Only three will go to Rio, and the battle for the third spot should be something to watch.

Foluke Akinradewo is the complete package: smart, great teammate, tall, quick, strong. Like all middles, her offense depends almost entirely on how well her teammates pass and dig: if her setter has few options, middle is usually not one of them. When she gets a good quick set, boom, it’s over. Like all middles, she can always up her serving game. Alinradewo was the second-best blocker (all countries) at the London Olympics, and has a clear path to the Rio roster.

Christa (Harmotto) Dietzen was also a London starter. She, too, is strong and smart, and is one of the team’s leaders, including captain of the gold medal 2014 World Championship team. She did not play professionally last winter as she recovered from a nagging knee injury. She is, however, on the roster for the final two World Grand Prix rounds, and we can measure her comeback by her performance in the grueling World Cup this August/September in Japan, where the top teams earn the first Olympic qualifying spots.

USA middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo

Tori Dixon and Lauren Gibbemeyer are both former Minnesota middles. This summer, they seem to be going head-to-head for one of the three middle slots in Rio. Dixon packs a wallop, and often muscles jousts to her advantage. Gibbemeyer is high-energy, converting quick sets with a whip arm and leading cheers after every point. Both are solid servers, so it might come down to intangibles. How would each fit the chemistry of the Rio team? Which one best handles defense after the serve? This battle could come down to the wire.

Lauren Paolini and Cursty Jackson are getting long looks this summer. Both are talented, but a trip to Rio could depend on whether there are injuries up the depth chart. Rachael Adams got lots of playing time last summer, but seems stuck among a wealth of talent. Any of these three might be in the mix for 2020.

National Team | USA defeats Thailand, remains undefeated

Lowe and Miyashiro excel in World Grand Prix; Vansant leads way in Pan Am Games
  • USA def. Thailand 3-1 (25-21, 25-18, 23-25, 25-16) [World Grand Prix]
  • USA def. Peru 3-0 (25-15, 25-13, 25-14) [Pan Am Games]

USA libero Tama Miyashiro had 12 digs in a 3-1 victory against Thailand
Karsta Lowe slammed 21 kills and Tama Miyashiro tallied 12 digs as USA defeated Thailand 3-1 (25-21, 25-18, 23-25, 25-16) in Hong Kong. Saturday morning (Pacific Time), USA and China—teams with identical 8-0 records—will wrap up the 2015 World Grand Prix preliminary rounds. Both teams, plus 8-0 Brazil, have already qualified to be among the six finalists next week in Omaha, Nebraska.

USA trailed 21-17 late in the first set, but an out-of-bounds save by substitute setter Courtney Thompson and a flying dig by Miyashiro kept Thailand from running away. Outside hitter Kim Hill—as she did in the previous night’s final match against Japan—stepped to the service line and turned the set around, serving the final 7 points of the set, including 2 aces.

The second set was all Lowe, as she fired bombs from the right side, particularly down the line. Even when USA was out of system, Lowe was able to connect without getting much of an approach. Late in the set, Miyashiro had another pair of acrobatic digs, including a perfect pancake.

“We scouted Thailand a bunch and so we had a pretty good idea where the hitters like to hit,” Miyashiro said. “So if I can get set up before they are actually setting the hitters, I put myself in a really good position to dig a lot of balls. It is fun to play defense against an offense like that. It really tests your patience and eye work.”

The third set featured long rallies, most of the longest won by Thailand. The Thais were rarely fooled by outside hitter Kelsey Robinson’s tips, and Thailand’s middles consistently tooled the USA block. At set point, Robinson served long.

USA rolled through the final set, as serving improved and the Americans kept the rallies shorter. Tori Dixon and Lauren Gibbemeyer alternated at middle the entire match. Both are trying to earn the third Olympic roster spot behind current leaders Foluke Akinradewo and Christa Dietzen, but neither turned in a spectacular performance against the shorter Thai team.

Setter Courtney Thompson and the USA bench react to one of several disputed calls in USA's 3-1 win over Thailand

In Toronto, Krista Vansant had seven kills and two aces to pace USA’s Pan Am Games team to an opening-round sweep of overmatched Peru. Jenna Hagglund saw brief action in sets 1 and 3. USA faces Puerto Rico Saturday evening in Toronto.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

National Team | USA now 7-0 in volleyball World Grand Prix with close win over Japan

Olympic vets Dietzen and Akinradewo make impact on return
  • USA def. Japan 3-0 (25-23, 25-22, 26-24)

USA libero Tama Miyashiro (center) leads a cheer during a 3-0 World Grand Prix win over Japan in Hong Kong

USA, welcoming four veteran players for the World Grand Prix third round in Hong Kong, rallied to sweep highly-ranked Japan, 3-0 (25-23, 25-22, 26-24). USA—now 7-0 in pool play and ranked #1 in the world—will face Thailand Friday morning (3:30AM Pacific Time). Japan, ranked fourth in world, is now 3-4 in pool play, but is still in contention to be among the six teams to qualify for the Finals next week in Omaha.

USA Middle blocker Christa (Harmotto) Dietzen, playing her first major tournament match of the summer, recorded 8 kills and 3 blocks. Her fellow middle Foluke Akinradewo—also playing her first match of the current World Grand Prix—had 8 kills and one block. Two other third round additions were also in the starting lineup: opposite Kelly Murphy contributed 10 kills and a block, while outside hitter Jordan Larson-Burbach had 3 kills and 2 blocks.

USA middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo (16) exchanges high-fives with setter Molly Kreklow

USA’s biggest numbers came from outside hitter Kim Hill. She had 9 kills and a jaw-dropping 6 service aces against one of the best defensive teams in the world. 4 of those aces came during a crucial third set comeback. Libero Kayla Banwarth had another good match, contributing 9 digs.

Molly Kreklow and Courtney Thompson once again shared setting duties, with Thompson entering each set as part of a double-substitution with Karsta Lowe.

USA, China and Brazil are all 7-0 in pool play, and all have qualified for next week’s Finals. Contenders for the final three spots include Italy, Russia, Japan, Thailand and Germany

National Team | USA Women’s Volleyball Road to Rio [Part 2]

Which players are in the running for the 12 USA women’s volleyball roster spots for the 2016 Olympic Games? Today: outsides and liberos

Which 12 American women will be selected next summer for the Rio Olympic Games?

With decision time for the 2016 Rio Olympic roster roughly a year away, we’re running through the probable Rio roster candidates, and suggesting what each has to do to make the final cut.

Be sure to see our first entry, Road to Rio (Part 1), for a discussion of the decision process and a rundown of setters and opposites. Today, we’ll talk about outside hitters and liberos. The next post will focus on middles.

2012 London Olympics
  • Logan Tom (Salt Lake City, Stanford University)
  • Megan (Hodge) Easy (Durham, NE, Penn State University
  • Jordan Larson-Burbach (Hooper, NE, University of Nebraska)

2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic candidates
  • Larson-Burbach
  • Easy
  • Kim Hill (Portland, OR, Pepperdine University)
  • Krista Vansant (Redlands, CA, University of Washington)
  • Kelsey Robinson (Bartlett, IL, University of Nebraska)
  • Kristin Hildebrand (Orem, UT, Stanford University)
  • Cassidy Lichtman (Poway, CA, Stanford University)

We group outside hitters and liberos together for two reasons. First, there are usually five roster spots available to be divided among these two positions—either 3 outsides and 2 liberos, or 4 outsides and 1 libero. Second, outsides and liberos are a team’s primary passers, and close matches against elite opponents can turn on that critically important skill.

Jordan Larson-Burbach’s is the obvious candidate for the top OH spot in Rio. In a recent interview with the Omaha World-Herald, she said she considered quitting the game after London, frustrated, in part, by her playing time in the gold medal match. Since then, she’s been one of the best professional outside hitters in the world, leading teams based in Russia (2013-14) and Turkey (2014-15) to a host of professional tournament championships. On the court, Larson-Burbach is clinical and aggressive. Off the court, she speaks her mind. Like any great outside, she will often be judged by how well she does when poor passing limits her setter’s options. Can she hit high hands? Can she tool the block? Can she drop killer tips? In Rio, the spotlight will likely shine her way.

When USA is in system, Megan (Hodge) Easy is deadly. With great hops and a whip arm, she can lead her team on long runs. But Easy has always had a weakness: passing. At times, the weakness is glaring enough to pull her team into an extended funk. Back from having her first child, she’s been getting plenty of chances from coach Karch Kiraly to learn from mistakes and improve. Her poor passing in the first two rounds of the 2015 World Grand Prix show she still has a ways to go.

USA outside hitter Kim Hill attacks against the Italian defense in the 2015 World Grand Prix

Kim Hill has made a strong push to unseat Easy in the starting lineup. Tall enough to not be intimidated by the block, she continues to make strides as a passer, hitter and blocker. Her serve makes it tough to keep her out of the lineup: a textbook hard, flat, deep float that is usually good for one or more long runs a match. Just today, she recorded 6 aces in a World Grand Prix win over Japan, including 4 in one service rotation. Kiraly likes to run a fast offense, which is sometimes a problem for Hill when passing breaks down and she is the obvious option. Her confidence, however, is growing, and may be ready to peak in Rio.

Krista Vansant is only a few weeks out of college, but she’s already making a splash. At the Pan Am Cup, a secondary tournament in Peru, she was named MVP. In World Grand Prix matches against Russia and Belgium, she and fellow rookie Karsta Lowe (an opposite) provided the firepower. In college, the former AVCA National Player of the Year was as well-respected for her serving and passing as she was for her hitting. She has a shot at Rio, but may need to tone down her enthusiasm when things go well in exchange for learning not to withdraw when things do not.

Kelsey Robinson, who transferred to Nebraska after three years at Tennessee, is unafraid to emote on the court. Her enthusiasm can be either inspiring or grating, but it works best when she’s on her game. She shares many of Vansant’s qualities—good serve, good pass—and has played solidly during the World Grand Prix. If Easy can’t overcome her passing problems, Robinson and Vansant may be battling for the third OH spot in Rio.

Kristin Hildebrand made a deep run in the leadup to London, but couldn’t quite crack the lineup. During her long career, she’s earned teammates’ respect as a leader and a hard worker. She has amazing hops, which make her a formidable attacker and blocker. In a crowded field, she may have to hope Kiraly goes with just one libero in Rio.

Cassidy Lichtman would be the perfect choice if Olympic rosters ever expand from 12 to 14. Lichtman has all the tools—she can hit, set, pass, serve. Problem is, there is always someone else who beats her at any one of those skills. With a roster of 14, she’d be the perfect injury replacement almost anywhere on the court. If she wants to coach someday, she’ll be a good one. Like Hildebrand, she might sneak in if Kiraly takes four outsides.

Other outsides with little more than an outside chance to make the Rio roster include Michelle Bartsch, Sonja Newcombe, Regan Hood and Kelly Reeves.


2012 London Olympics
  • Nicole Davis (Stockton, University of Southern California)
  • Tama Miyashiro (Kaneohe, HI, University of Washington)

2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic candidates
  • Davis
  • Miyashiro
  • Kayla Banwarth (Dubuque, IA, University of Nebraska)

USA libero Tama Miyashiro celebrates a point.
Over the past 12 months, Kayla Banwarth has come into her own. Calm, steady and focused, she has earned the starting libero spot in every major competition, and is likely the leading contender for Rio. She has great eyework, allowing her to get into good positions to avoid the need for flashy digs. Banwarth can also show fire: during a sloppy World Grand Prix stretch against Serbia, she fairly seethed during a timeout, something her teammates had to have noticed. Back on the court, she made several big digs to help USA win that match in five.

Tama Miyashiro spent last summer recovering from injury, but worked her way back up to the World Grand Prix roster this summer. In London, she was the backup libero, which means she spent most of her time getting ready for rare opportunities on the court. Not everyone can accept that kind of role, which might give her a leg up for Rio. Coach Kiraly will have to decide whether to risk taking just one libero to Brazil, but would need a Plan B if there’s an injury. Miyashiro is technically sound and well-loved by teammates—intangibles might make the difference.

Nicole Davis has twice won Olympic silver medals, and would hate to miss a chance to win a gold. For now, Banwarth has passed her in the depth chart, and—like any former starter—might struggle with the prospect of being a substitute in Rio.

One other libero is in the mix: Natalie Hagglund. She’s not yet been on any major-tournament rosters, but could be a contender, especially if injuries are a factor. If not this Olympics, she’d be an early contender for 2020.

next post: middle blockers

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

National Team | USA Women’s Volleyball Road to Rio [Part 1]

Which players are in the running for the 12 USA women’s volleyball roster spots at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio? Today: setters and opposites

Which 12 American women will be on the 2016 Olympic Games roster for the Rio de Janeiro?

Roughly a year from now, USA head coach Karch Kiraly will have one of the best and worst days of his coaching life so far.

As several former Olympic coaches have told us, announcing the final roster decision is one of the hardest, most gut-wrenching parts of the job. It’s done in a small room, with each nervous candidate facing a coaching staff who know her every strength and weakness. It’s a zero-sum game: for every ecstatic athlete, one or more is absolutely crushed. And the head coach has to look each and every one in the eye and say yes or no.

Know this: with one year to go before the big decision, Kiraly is rooting for every one of his current Olympic candidates. He wants every injured player to get well, every veteran to reach her pinnacle, every rookie to dazzle. You can bet that Karch (and his staff) won’t make any decisions until they absolutely have to, perhaps sweating some until the final hour.

No one, at this stage, is a lock.

That said, we can confidently predict most of the legitimate Rio roster candidates, and suggest what each has to do to make the final cut. Today, we’ll focus on setters and opposites. Next post, outside hitters and liberos. Finally, the middle blockers.

One more thing: The team in Rio will likely not be the 12 best athletes, or even the 12 best at their respective positions. The starting seven (setter, libero, 2 outsides, 2 middles, opposite) will surely be the cream of the crop, but the remaining five will likely include some who are there as much for their leadership and/or ability to be a killer substitute as they are for their talent. In team sports, chemistry matters.


2012 London Olympics
  • Lindsey Berg (Honolulu, University of Minnesota)
  • Courtney Thompson (Kent, WA, University of Washington)

2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic candidates
  • Thompson
  • Alicia Glass (Leland, MI, Penn State University)
  • Molly Kreklow (Delano, MN, University of Missouri)
  • Carli Lloyd (Bonsall, CA, University of California)
  • Jenna Hagglund (West Chester, OH, University of Washington)

During the past 4 years, the US National Team has essentially created two different setter positions. The starting setter gets most of the playing time. The substitute setter rotates in when the starting opposite is ready to serve a second time (usually when USA has 14-18 points or so.) At the same time, the starting setter subs out for the substitute opposite.

In the international game, teams are allowed limited substitutions. This setter/opposite sub gives USA three front-row hitters (and a taller blocker) for nine straight serve rotations. Hugh McCutcheon used this system to good effect in the second half of the last quad, and Kiraly has continued it ever since.

The substitute setter has to have all the physical tools, plus a certain passion when she enters the match. She must be able to run the team throughout an entire match, as Courtney Thompson did in the 2012 London quarterfinals, when starter Lindsey Berg was sidelined by an injury.

USA World Grand Prix captain Courtney Thompson
Courtney Thompson is the leading candidate for the substitute setter position, and will stay in the running for the starting position as long as she can. She is currently captain of USA’s World Grand Prix team, and has upped her game every year since 2006, when she first wore a USA jersey. As a pro, she captained Volero Zurich—one of Europe’s top teams—to the final rounds of most international club tournaments the past two seasons. This fall, she’s signed with Brazil’s Rexona-Ades, one of the world’s top professional teams. Playing in Brazil will allow her to acclimate to that volleyball-mad nation’s level of competition in advance of the 2016 Rio Games. Brazil, of course, is the nation that broke USA hearts by winning the gold medal match against the Americans in each of the last two Olympics.

Alicia Glass has been the leading candidate for the starting setter position for most of the current quad. She is recovering from an injury—reportedly an ankle—and has not seen any National Team competition this summer. Glass battled Lindsey Berg for the starting setter spot for London, and has been determined not to let an Olympic roster spot slip away again. Glass is tall (6-0) and a decent blocker, but she usually lets someone else be the vocal leader on the floor. At the international level, a setter has to be both a great server and defender, two areas where Glass needs more work.

Molly Kreklow has assumed the starting setter position during Glass’s recovery. She seemed to come out of nowhere, from a program (Missouri) that is not a traditional power. That Mizzou team, however, went 35-0 in 2013 before losing to Purdue in the NCAA second round. Kreklow shares many of Glass’s attributes; she’s also 6-0 and a decent blocker. She, too, is not a vocal leader, and—at this stage of her career—makes a lot of service errors. Those errors, however, are usually because she’s being aggressive, which is better than the alternative.

Carli Lloyd could step in if any of the previous three falter. Since being named AVCA National Player of the Year in 2010 while leading Cal to the NCAA Championship Match, Lloyd has been a bit of an enigma. Injuries have been a big factor. Even when healthy, however, she hasn’t yet made a USA roster for a major competition. This summer, she seems to be doing well, and has shared setting chores at secondary tournaments in Peru and Canada.

Jenna Hagglund has probably as good a shot as Lloyd if any of the top three miss the cut. In her years as a pro, she’s worked hard in the weight room and is a much stronger, confident setter than she was during her years at Washington. She and Lloyd share time at the secondary tournaments, but her fellow Huskies alum might offer an inspiring lesson: At the start of 2011, Courtney Thompson was probably fifth in the USA depth chart, but worked her way onto the Olympic roster.

Other talented setters are out there, but they aren’t part of the USA system this quad. Contenders for future Olympics might include Micha Hancock, Lauren Carlini and Lauren Plum, among others.


2012 London Olympics
  • Destinee Hooker (San Antonio, University of Texas)
  • Tayyiba Haneef-Park (Laguna Hills, CA, Long Beach State)

2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic candidates
  • Karsta Lowe (Rancho Santa Fe, CA, UCLA)
  • Kelly Murphy (Wilmington, IL, University of Florida)
  • Nicole Fawcett (Zanesfield, OH, Penn State University)
  • Alix Klineman (Manhattan Beach, CA, Stanford University)

We pair opposites with setters for the reasons described above. Under the current USA system, one player is the usually starting opposite, while the other substitutes in with the substitute setter.

Karsta Lowe has been the summer surprise of 2015. Just weeks after college graduation, she’s taken the World Grand Prix by storm, igniting what will be perhaps the best competition at any position. Lowe, a lefty, is big, strong, and unafraid to hit hard, even when a play breaks down. Her back row attacks seem to baffle defenders, as she hits across her body with that powerful left arm. For a rookie, her court demeanor is calm and focused. She plays her first pro season this fall (Puerto Rico) and will try to be one of the few just-out-of-college players to ever make the roster.

We were with Kelly Murphy in 2013, on her very first day with the National Team. Off the court, she struck us a sweet and extremely shy. On the court, she blew us away with her power and focus. In 2014, she was the surprise star of several international tournaments. This year and next, she’ll be in a battle with Lowe for the starting opposite spot in Rio. Also a tall lefty, Murphy excels at disguising whether she’ll hit cross or line. Like Lowe, she attacks with power from the back row. Most of the time, her footwork is disciplined, making herself available whenever the team is in system.

Nicole Fawcett just missed making the London roster, and would seem a natural frontrunner for the substitute opposite position. She’s a savvy veteran, with the respect of her teammates. As a right-hander, she’d bring a different look during her rotations. At the Grand Prix, she’s been more reluctant than Lowe to blast a less-than-perfect set, and her blocking can be inconsistent. Her biggest hurdle might be Kiraly’s hesitation to keep either of his young left-handers home.

Alix Klineman is probably fourth on the opposite depth chart. The Stanford grad has yet to break into a major international tournament lineup, and would need two of those ahead of her to falter to have a good shot at Rio.

Other opposites hoping to make an impression: Juliann Faucette, Falyn Fonoimoana, Bailey Webster.

NEXT POST: Outside Hitters and Liberos

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