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


  1. I'm a fan of Kelly Murphy and Alicia Glass. Will bookmark your site.

    Thanks for this. :)

  2. Missed Alisha at the Grand Prix.

    A big Fan of Kelly's. Kelly's defense seems to have gotten better after her stint in Japan, but her line shots seem to have gone away during the Grand Prix. It makes her a little more predictable against big block teams like China and Brazil. Also easier to defend from the back row for teams like Japan and Thailand.

  3. As long as USA team can take gold and focus through the brazilians home court advantage.


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