There are plenty of reasons for Nicole Davis and her teammates to look forward to the USA Volleyball Cup series against Japan.
First, it’s a chance for the U.S. women’s national team, ranked No. 1 in the world, to test itself against one of the globe’s best programs, Japan, which earned the bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games, and is ranked No. 3.
It’s also an opportunity for the Americans to keep their momentum rolling under first-year head coach and three-time Olympic volleyball gold medalist Karch Kiraly. The United States is 5-0 in 2013 following its sweep of the Pan American Cup last month in Peru.
But equally important to Davis, the veteran libero who has been a part of Team USA’s silver medal-winning Olympic teams in London and Beijing, is the fact she and her teammates will get to play the three-match series against Japan in Southern California.
Although the team is based in Anaheim — in the middle of perhaps the country’s most fertile field of volleyball talent and interest — the U.S. women’s team rarely gets to play matches at home, so the USA Volleyball Cup is a welcome change.
Game No. 1 of the series is Wednesday at the University of California San Diego. Game No. 2 is Friday at Long Beach State. The final game is Saturday at JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano, located in southern Orange County. All games begin at 7 p.m. (PDT).
Davis called the USA Volleyball Cup an “absolutely rare” opportunity to play at home. In 2012, for instance, the U.S. team played 32 matches (going 30-2), but played just three of those in Southern California, a series against Bulgaria in Anaheim and Los Angeles. And that, she said, was the first time in years the team had played on American soil.
“From my perspective, I think it’s really great in terms of the growth of the game,” said Davis, who played at USC and helped the Trojans win NCAA championships in 2002 and 2003. “It’s really difficult for the public to get invested in our team if they don’t get a chance to watch us play and to get to know us.
“We spend hours after the matches signing autographs and talking to people. It’s a huge opportunity for people to get invested in our program and our team as human beings, to see the hard work that we’re doing here in Anaheim."
|The United States assistant coach Karch Kiraly celebrates winning
the women's volleyball preliminary match between the United States
and Brazil at the London 2012 Olympic Games at Earls
Court on July 30, 2012 in London, England.
|Nicole Davis returns serve in the women's volleyball preliminary
match between the United States and Brazil at the London 2012
Olympic Games at Earls Court on July 30, 2012 in
Kiraly, who served as an assistant coach in the program from 2009-12, agrees. Since succeeding Hugh McCutcheon as coach in September, Kiraly said he has been lobbying for the team to play more games in the United States. The USA Volleyball Cup will be an annual series that will allow the U.S. men’s and women’s teams to host elite national teams.
“It’s just the nature of the way the schedule has evolved, and we’re trying to do a little to change that,” said Kiraly, who won two Olympic gold medals in indoor volleyball and a third in beach volleyball.
It’s important, he said, because it helps keep the pipeline open between youth, high school and college volleyball programs and the national team.
“We’ve got a group that works really hard to be masters of their craft,” Kiraly said. “And in many ways they should be, and are, an inspiration to those younger athletes. That’s the big value in allowing people to watch our team in action."
To Kiraly, the USA Volleyball Cup comes at a perfect time.
Although the U.S. team cruised through the Pan American Cup in Peru, beating Trinidad & Tobago, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Brazil and the Dominican Republic, the United States wasn’t severely tested. Brazil is a world power, but the nation sent its junior national team, not its national team.
Now the Americans face Japan, a team that has a rich tradition of winning, being well-coached and playing solid, mistake-free volleyball. It’s a chance for a U.S. roster — which has had significant turnover since London — to be tested before heading off on a long road trip to Brazil, Serbia and Japan in August for FIVB Volleyball World Grand Prix matches against the best teams in the world.
The U.S. women have won the last three FIVB Volleyball World Grand Prix titles, with Brazil finishing second all three of those years. In the previous two years, Brazil finished on top.
So what spectators in San Diego, Long Beach and San Juan Capistrano should see are some tight, spirited matches.
“They don’t make a lot of unforced errors and they do what we aspire to do: make the opposition beat themselves,” said Kiraly of the Japanese. “They also play really good floor defense and it’s hard to get the ball … it’s hard to get kills, which I like.
“It’s going to be frustrating for our hitters,” Kiraly added. “They’re pesky, and pesky teams are not teams every athlete in our gym, or anywhere, likes to play. But coaches love to play pesky teams. It exposes some things. It shows us what we need to do to get better, so we’ll learn a lot."
Japan brought a roster of 15, all of whom will suit up. The Japanese squad includes Saori Kimura, Yukiko Ebata and Risa Simnabe, who were on the bronze-medal team in London.
The U.S. roster will fluctuate, Kiraly said. He has 28 players now practicing with the national team, and he will have an active roster of 14 for each of the games that will fluctuate “significantly."
With the London Games now in the past and the U.S. women now embarking on a new four-year push toward the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, some veteran players have retired and others are taking breaks. That has opened the door for newcomers and former backups.
Davis said she feels like “75 percent of the people we have in the gym” are new. Other veterans on the team aside from Davis are five-time Olympian Danielle Scott and Christa Harmotto, both middle blockers, and outside hitter Jordan Larson-Burbach, libero Tama Miyashiro and setter Courtney Thompson, all of whom were on the team in London. One of the key players absent from the team’s roster is Destinee Hooker, who is expecting the birth of her first child later this summer. The Olympian did, however, watch an informal scrimmage between the United States and Japanese teams on Tuesday.
Among players to watch this year is outside hitter Nicole Fawcett, a former standout at Penn State who led the team in points three times at the Pan American Cup (where she was named MVP).
For Davis, 31, who has been with the U.S. national team since 2005, the year after an Olympic Games can be challenging. But she said despite a new coach and new teammates, that hasn’t really been the case.
“The transition between Hugh and Karch has been pretty seamless,” she said, adding that techniques and concepts are the same, and Kiraly and his staff have kept many methods and routines similar, though with their own wrinkles.
“The staff has a good grasp of what we need to do to take it to the next level and win a gold medal,” she said.
That, in fact, is Kiraly’s ultimate goal for the U.S. women’s program. Although the U.S. has earned three Olympic silver medals and has silvers at the World Cup and World Championships, it hasn’t won gold in any of those big three. As he transitions from world-class player to assistant coach to head coach, Kiraly has that target in his sights. He and his staff have met with players and given them detailed scouting reports on what they need to improve. He said he knows he will have to learn and grow, too.
“It starts with me,” he said.
“Our No. 1 task for your athletes is they need to be learners,” he added. “What got them here is not going to keep them here. What got them into the USA gym will not necessarily keep them in the USA gym."
So, what Kiraly is hoping for is a strong year of growth as a launching point for Rio. It begins with the matches against Japan, then the Grand Prix, followed by the NORCECA Women’s Continental Championship in September and the Grand Champions Cup in November.
As Davis knows, an Olympic medal comes after four years and hundreds of small steps that add up to big things.
“If you look too far ahead to 2016, then everything becomes overwhelming,” she said. “So it’s great we can have one of the top teams in the world in our own country to help us get better and prepare for the Grand Prix for the next stop."
General admission for each game of the USA Volleyball Cup is $20 for adults and $5 for youth 18 and under. Children 3 and under are free. All three matches also will be live streamed here.