Monday, June 20, 2016

National Team | USA women passing less than perfect

USA adds three more World Grand Prix wins, but serve receive a sticking point; Pac-12 schedule is released

  • 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 | USA def. Germany 3-1 (25-17. 24-26, 25-10, 25-23)
  • June 18 | Long Beach, CA | USA def. Japan 3-0 (25-16, 25-23, 25-21)
  • June 19 | Long Beach, CA | USA def. Turkey 3-0 (25-21, 25-20, 25-16)
  • June 24 | Hong Kong | USA vs. Germany | 3:30AM (Pacific)
  • June 24 | Hong Kong | USA vs. Netherlands | 10:15PM (Pacific)
  • June 26 | Hong Kong | USA @ China | 12:45AM (Pacific)

USA outside hitter Kelsey Robinson had an off night
passing against Turkey
-photo by FIVB
Tens of thousands of kids and teens will soon be heading to summer volleyball camps all around the country. Among the first skills they’ll practice is passing. And for most newcomers, nothing could be more boring.

Turns out—as most coaches will tell you—passing may be volleyball’s most important skill. With just weeks before the start of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, USA’s Women’s National Team will likely be practicing passing just as much as those summer camp kids.

Last night in Long Beach, USA struggled to a 3-0 (25-21, 25-20, 25-16) win over Turkey, bringing the Americans’ record to 5-1 in the month-long 2016 World Grand Prix. Throughout the match, sloppy passing all but nullified USA’s considerable age and experience. Here are a few observations about the World Grand Prix’s second weekend:


When we talk about poor passing, we’re talking about outside hitters, the players responsible for all but a handful of serve receptions. 33 of Turkey’s serves were directed at Kelsey Robinson, who was aced only once, but sent her setters scrambling on 14 poor passes. The other two serve receivers—outside hitter Jordan Larson and libero Kayla Banwarth—had perfect passes on all but two attempts each.

Robinson is a generally solid player, but has a tendency to shrink under pressure. Against Turkey, she had 12 kills and 3 errors in 26 attempts, respectable numbers (bolstered, frankly, by Larson’s great passing.) But on many occasions, Robinson tips (often unconvincingly) when she might be better attacking opponents’ hands for a tool attempt. She too often sends across maddeningly easy free balls in situations where she could jump and swing instead.

Larson had a solid weekend, and will clearly be USA’s top outside in Rio. The OH2 will be Kim Hill, who sometimes has passing issues of her own, but is a far more dominant hitter and blocker than Robinson. That’s a strong duo, and USA may not have to dig any deeper against top tier Olympic opponents in Rio.

That said, Robinson has probably locked up the third outside spot on the Rio roster, leaving questions about a fourth Olympic OH. In two weekends of Grand Prix play, head coach Karch Kiraly has included 3 outside hitters and 3 setters on his 14-player roster; the norm is 4 and 2, respectively. As USA heads to Hong Kong for the third preliminary round this weekend, look to see whether Kiraly includes Megan Easy this time. Easy is a spectacular hitter whose Achilles heel has been … passing.


USA middle blocker Rachael Adams had a
big weekend in Long Beach
-photo by FIVB
Rachael Adams has rarely been in USA’s middle blocker conversation this quad, but now seemed poised to grab the MB3 slot in Rio. With Foluke Akinradewo and Christa Dietzen the obvious top two, Adams has had a marvelous Grand Prix so far. She’s mature and disciplined, and has shown all the physical tools necessary to beat out Lauren Gibbemeyer and Lauren Paolini for Rio’s third middle roster spot.

The Turkey match was the first time in six Grand Prix contests that veteran opposite Nicole Fawcett has been in the lineup. As usual, she excelled. That’s no surprise to those who’ve been watching the three-way battle between Fawcett, Karsta Lowe and Kelly Murphy for what may be just two opposite positions in Rio. More than once, we’ve wondered whether Kiraly might take three opposites and three outsides instead of the usual 4 and 2.


At age 31, setter Courtney Thompson is the senior member of the Women’s National Team. The former Washington All-American has spent much of the past decade exceeding expectations, which includes overcoming naysayers who think her Olympic days are behind her.

USA setter Courtney Thompson serves against
Germany at the World Grand Prix
-photo by FIVB
If Alicia Glass stays healthy, Glass will surely secure one of two setter spots in Rio. Throughout this year’s Grand Prix, Kiraly has given Carli Lloyd a long look as both a starter (in last week’s loss to China) and as the primary double-substitution setter in rotations 9, 10 & 11. The question remains: is Lloyd—who has little National Team experience—the standby in case Glass can’t go to Rio? Or is she competing against Thompson for the number two slot?

Frankly, only Kiraly and his staff know the answer. But Thompson is an extraordinary asset, the emotional leader of the team, whether or not she’s in the lineup. She has Olympic experience—and played the entire match in an elimination round victory in London in 2012. She’s also just spent a year leading Rio’s top professional team to the Brazilian championship, so she knows Rio and Brazil’s Olympians as well as anyone. In case you haven’t heard, Thompson was wildly popular with Rio’s sophisticated volleyball fans—the home arena echoed with chants of “USA! USA!” each time she approached the service line.

The 12 athletes on the Rio roster will likely be named in the next 10 days or so. Don’t count out Courtney Thompson.

  • Be sure to check out last weekend’s New York Times’ profile, Karch Kiraly now setting up US Women’s volleyball team to succeed. If you’ve seen our documentary, Court & Spark, you’ll recognize several items first reported in that film. The article includes quotes from three of those featured in Court & Spark, Kiraly, Courtney Thompson, and Marv Dunphy. And a heads-up … Court & Spark will soon be available on major streaming services.
  • The size of the crowds at Long Beach State’s Pyramid Arena fluctuated wildly over the weekend, from full-to-the-rafters Saturday night to rattling-around-an-vacant-pavilion Sunday. Yesterday’s embarrassing emptiness may have been a confluence of triple-digit temperatures outside and competition from the NBA Finals Game 7. But it also raises questions about lost opportunities playing so many matches this quad in Southern California. We’re looking at you, University of Washington and Seattle Sports Commission. Remember that sold-out 2013 NCAA Final Four in Seattle? It’s time to place a few calls to sponsor USA Volleyball exhibitions and FIVB tournaments for the next quad, when former UW star Krista Vansant will be in the mix for the 2020 Olympic roster in Tokyo.
  • The USA/Turkey match was the first time in six contests that NBC Sports’ streaming broadcast included commentators. Former Olympian Paul Sunderland was, as usual, highly entertaining and opinionated. Former Stanford coach Don Shaw did fine, though Sunderland’s usual partner, Kevin Barnett, invariably adds better insight. Sadly, too few FIVB matches include commentary, a real hurdle to volleyball’s appeal to a larger audience.
  • The Pac-12 released its 2016 volleyball schedule. The big headline for Washington: its second conference match is at USC, and its third is home against Stanford. Thanks to the Pac-12’s unbalanced schedule, Washington fans will not see USC at Alaska Airlines Arena this season. The Huskies play four Wednesday conference matches and six Sunday matches, two days of the week that have traditionally drawn small crowds, particularly when the Seahawks are on television. In one stretch, UW plays three road matches in six nights, and four in eight.

8/27       @ James Madison            Harrisonburg, VA
8/28       vs. American University   Harrisonburg, VA
9/1         @ Seattle U
9/2         Idaho
9/2         Villanova
9/9         vs. Utah Valley                  Honolulu
9/10       vs. Northern Illinois          Honolulu
9/11       @ Hawai’i                          Honolulu
9/15       vs. Maryland                      Los Angeles
9/16       vs. Oklahoma                     Los Angeles
9/21       Washington St
9/23       @ USC
9/28       Stanford
9/29       California
10/7       @ Oregon
10/9       @ Oregon St
10/14     Utah
10/16     Colorado
10/21     @ Arizona St
10/23     @ Arizona
10/26     @ Stanford
10/28     @ California
11/4       Oregon
11/6       Oregon St
11/10     Arizona
11/13     Arizona St
11/18     @ Colorado
11/20     @ Utah
11/23     UCLA
11/26     @ Washington St

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