Monday, August 19, 2013

National Team | USA rallies to earn spot in World Grand Prix volleyball final round

Nicole Fawcett and Kim Hill spark come-from-behind victory over Bulgaria
  • #1 USA def. #42 Bulgaria 3-2 (16-25, 25-23, 20-25, 25-15, 15-8)
  • next: FIVB World Grand Prix final round | USA, China, Brazil, Serbia, Italy, Japan | August 28 – September 1 | Sapporo, Japan

It was a day of comebacks for Team USA, none bigger than Nicole Fawcett

USA's Nicole Fawcett (14) blocks against
Bulgaria's Elitsa Vasileva
-photo courtesy Bill Kauffman, USA Volleyball
The USA opposite hitter and former Penn State star has struggled for playing time this summer in the wake of the steady play of quick-armed lefty Kelly Murphy (University of Florida.) After a frustrating experience during the first three World Grand Prix pool play matches in Brazil, Fawcett did not travel with the team for the middle three pool matches in Serbia.

Sunday afternoon, Fawcett watched from the bench as Murphy and her teammates were absolutely schooled during a first set shellacking at the hands Bulgaria, 25-16. Usually-reliable outside hitter Kim Hill (Pepperdine) struggled mightily with her passing, allowing Bulgaria’s imposing blockers to anticipate almost every Alicia Glass set. As Bulgaria’s colorful Italian coach Marcello Abbondanza danced like a marionette with every point, USA’s usually-unflappable coach Karch Kiraly showed rare flashes of frustration.

Despite coming into the match with a 7-1 pool play record, USA needed the Bulgarian contest to go a minimum of five sets in order to guarantee advancing to the final round of six. (In international tournaments, teams receive 3 points for 3-0 or 3-1 win, 2 points for a 3-2 win, and 1 point for 2-3 loss.) For a long while, the second set looked as bad as the first, as Bulgaria stayed in system for nearly every offensive play. Earlier in the tournament, Bulgaria had handed both Brazil and Japan their first losses of the tournament.

But as set two wore on, Hill’s passing dramatically improved. Combined with libero Tama Miyashiro’s (Washington) steady digging, with USA trailing by 5, Kiraly inserted Fawcett for Murphy. Hill’s passing helped USA pull within three 19-22. Two Bulgaria errors and a Christa Harmotto (Penn State) block gave Fawcett her first chance to shine. She made a terrific approach to the Bulgarian block, giving USA the lead. Hill finished the comeback with a kill, part of a 6-1 closing finish.
USA's Kim Hill attacks against the Bulgarian block in World Grand Prix pool play in Sendai, Japan
-photo courtesy FIVB
Bulgaria gutted out a set three win, but appeared to tire as the match rolled on. Fawcett was in a groove; both she and fellow outside hitter Kristin Hildebrandt (Stanford) enjoyed more in-system sets, allowing them to tool or avoid the Bulgarian block. Significantly, American hitters varied the pace of the attack, pushing several shots to holes down the line, instead of full-out hammering every attempt. USA cruised the rest of the way, winning the final two sets with ease. Hildebrandt ended with 13 kills; Hill had 12 and Fawcett finished with 11. A surprised Fawcett was named player of the match.

The final round begins Wednesday of next week (September 28) in Sapporo, Japan. Six teams—USA, Japan, China, Brazil, Italy and Serbia—will play round-robin matches, leading to a championship. USA is trying to become the first team ever to win the annual World Grand Prix event four years in a row.

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