Tuesday, June 14, 2016

National Team | Do bad calls balance out? USA and China exchange video challenges

Playing at home, China wins the first of what could be a trio of World Grand Prix matchups

  • June 10 | Ningbo, China | USA def. Germany 3-0 (25-15, 25-17, 25-12)
  • June 11 | Ningbo, China | USA def. Thailand 3-0 (25-21, 29-27, 25-23)
  • June 12 | Ningbo, China | China def. USA 3-1 (25-20, 25-19, 15-25, 25-23)
  • June 17 | Long Beach, CA | Germany @ USA | 7:10PM
  • June 18 | Long Beach, CA | Japan @ USA | 7:10PM
  • June 19 | Long Beach, CA | Turkey @ USA | 5:10PM

USA head coach Karch Kiraly (R) listens to setter Carli Lloyd
-photo courtesy FIVB

Bad calls tend to balance out. The final two points of China’s 3-1 home court World Grand Prix first round victory over USA seemed to prove that point.

With USA trailing 24-22 in the fourth set, the line judge called Kelly Murphy’s serve long. As China’s players celebrated, USA coach Karch Kiraly asked for a video replay. The serve, it turned out, was definitively in, changing the score to 24-23.

In the subsequent rally, Zhang Changning’s attack sailed long, tying the score. This time, however, China coach Jenny Lang Ping challenged. The dark, grainy video seemed to show that the attack at grazed Foluke Akinradewo’s index finger. Point and match, China.

All told, Kiraly issued four challenges throughout the match. All four were upheld, giving USA an otherwise lost point each time. Lang Ping also initiated four challenges of her own; three were upheld. By that measure, the adage about bad calls balancing seems just about right. It’s telling, however, that two of the seven overturned calls came at match point.

First referee Simone Santi of Italy officiates the USA/China match in Ningbo, China
-photo courtesy FIVB

The World Grand Prix is an annual four-week globetrotting marathon, sending the world’s best teams around the planet fighting jet lag and top competition. China’s home court win in the third of nine preliminary matches was not an upset, but it’s not necessarily a preview of the Rio Olympics, where USA, Brazil, China, Russia and Serbia all have a shot at gold.

The Grand Prix is the only 2016 major pre-Olympic tournament, as coaches around the world try to determine which 12 players will make their Rio roster. Kiraly has 16-18 athletes still in the running, and will try different combinations throughout June before settling on his final dozen. Here’s what we learned the first weekend:

Kiraly took three setters to Ningbo: Courtney Thompson, Alisha Glass and Carli Lloyd. Lloyd was the player under the microscope this weekend. The former Cal All-American has rarely made the cut for major tournament rosters. Lloyd plays good defense and is an adequate server, but her sets to outside hitters tended to be very high, and her backsets to right-side hitters were often off the mark. Usual starter Glass has battled injuries throughout the quad; Lloyd may be in the mix if Glass is unavailable for Rio.

For the past four summers, three opposites have taken turns as the go-to hitters in USA’s offense: Kelly Murphy, Karsta Lowe and Nicole Fawcett. Murphy and Lowe were in Ningbo, and Lowe seemed to have the advantage. She is punishing from the back row, and was often the one hitter able to stop long opponent rallies. Fawcett, however, was the hottest opposite of 2015, and the decision about which two of the three candidates will be in Rio may be Kiraly’s toughest.

Jordan Larson, Kim Hill and Kelsey Robinson were in Ningbo. None had a spectacular weekend, though Larson showed flashes of the skills that have made her one of the world’s most successful professional players. Robinson brings energy, but can be erratic. Unlike Lowe, who pounds the ball at every opportunity, Robinson tends to revert to tips when she’s under pressure, not always to good effect. Barring injury, Larson, Hill, Robinson and Megan Easy should all be on the Rio roster.

Foluke Akinradewo is the best middle in the world, as China would surely agree. USA captain Christa Dietzen, battling injuries this quad, is a fiery and powerful leader when she has to be. But the third middle in Rio is far from certain. Rachael Adams, Lauren Gibbemeyer and Lauren Paolini seemed to be the candidates when Tori Dixon went down with an injury, but along came Alexis Crimes. The 30-year-old pro out of Long Beach State convinced Kiraly she deserved a closer look, and her Ningbo performance was impressive. There’s a chance she could sneak in. (see: Alexis Crimes Earns Rare 2nd Chance).

Kayla Banwarth has been USA’s libero throughout the quad, and saw all the playing time in Ningbo. Natalie Hagglund was on the Ningbo roster, but both she and Tama Miyashiro will have to hope Kiraly decides to take two liberos to Rio, instead of a third opposite or a fourth middle.

This weekend, USA hosts the second weekend of preliminary World Grand Prix play at Long Beach, against Germany, Japan and Turkey. The following weekend, they’ll head back across the Pacific to Hong Kong, where they’ll face Netherlands, Germany (for a third time) and a rematch with China. Five team will join host Thailand in the final round, where USA and China could meet for a third time in four weeks.

  • As faithful Volleyblog readers know, Leslie’s brother, Craig Buck, was critically injured last October when his bicycle collided with a pickup truck. We’re happy to report that progress has been steady, if slow. As a few of you know, we’ve made several adjustments to our lives and schedules, which will directly affect our Volleyblog posts in the months to come. We hope to bring you our take on the USA women’s team throughout the summer, and will keep you informed of our plans as the fall collegiate season gets underway. Thanks for your patience, and stay tuned.
  • Serving and passing makes all the difference at every level of the game. In the weekend’s first match, USA served and passed Germany off the court, spurring a rout in each set. But Thailand, USA’s second opponent, kept the score close thanks to mastery of both skills. Ultimately, it was USA’s superior height and power—especially from Karsta Lowe—that helped the Americans prevail against the Thais. The Chinese, however, matched USA’s height, and likely prevailed in the match because they won the serve-and-pass game.
  • We started today’s post by focusing on the heavy use of video challenges at the international level. Fans of the Pac-12—and critics of recent controversial officials’ calls—should soon see video challenges in effect during conference games. The technology is expensive and incomplete, but it should make for some interesting conversations …


  1. Very much appreciate the update. Please know continued thoughts and prayers for your bil's recovery.

  2. welcome back, and we certainly understand the hiatus. Good wishes for Craig


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