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.

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