Thursday, July 16, 2015

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

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