Kelly Murphy and Kelsey Robinson are veritable newcomers to the U.S. women’s national volleyball team, where some players have remained fixtures for more than a decade.
Still, that hasn’t stopped the pair from becoming the most dangerous hitting duo on the world’s second-ranked squad entering the FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship, which begins this week and runs until Oct. 12 throughout Italy.
Murphy, a second-year opposite out of the University of Florida, leads the U.S. offense with 4.35 points per set and a team-leading 193 kills. She has led the U.S. team in scoring in seven of her 13 matches this year.
Meanwhile, Robinson, a first-year outside hitter from the University of Nebraska, ranks second with 182 points scored. She has led the team in scoring five times, including a 22-point performance against Brazil in July, and has a team-best 17 aces.
“They both have bright futures for USA,” coach Karch Kiraly said. “(Kelly) helps us play a very fast game… and (Kelsey) doesn’t back down at all.”
Together, they will attempt to lead Team USA to its first title in a major competition, including the Olympic Games, FIVB World Championship or FIVB World Cup. The squad took fourth at the most recent world championship in 2010, and is coming off an uneven performance at last month’s FIVB World Grand Prix, where it finished 5-4 and took fifth in its group.
“I think we all just came back from Grand Prix extremely hungry to be better, and with a sense of urgency to win,” Robinson said. “In these past few weeks, we’ve been going harder than we ever have this whole summer. It’s been hot in the gym and there haven’t been any easy games. I’m really excited to see what we can do at world championships. Our sense of chemistry has come a long way since Grand Prix, and I think we’re going to surprise some people.”
Five players on the U.S. team boast Olympic experience, something both Murphy and Robinson hope to gain in 2016.
In recent months, however, each simply has focused on making the difficult transition from college to international competition. They are two of five players — along with middle blockers Rachael Adams and Tori Dixon and outside hitter Kim Hill — in their first or second year on the team.
“It is a difficult transition to make, and it doesn’t all get made at once, for sure,” said Kiraly, a three-time Olympic champion. “There’s a growing process and a learning process, and an acclimation to the greater level of mindfulness.”
“I think that’s the one thing that people really don’t understand,” Robinson said. “The level from high school to college is a bit of a jump, but college to international is quite a jump. You have to know every part of the game and you have to be able to play every part of the game. I think the speed and the power of the game is extremely different. It’s super fast, and you have hitters who are 6-4 and can hit right over the block.”
Murphy, a three-time All-American in college, said the veteran presence of setters Alisha Glass and Courtney Thompson has gone a long way in aiding with her development at the international level.
“When I stepped into the gym last year we were really focused on running it fast, which was something different from what I’d been used to,” Murphy said. “It took a while just to get used to that and how hard you have to work. But our setters have done a really good job, and the speed makes it easier to find kills a lot of times.”
The fact that Murphy is left-handed also works to the team’s advantage, according to Kiraly. She helps speed an already fast offense designed to make hits before opponents have time to react.
In Italy, the United States will need big performances from both Murphy and Robinson to get past two-time defending champion Russia and top-ranked Brazil. The U.S. team in July topped Brazil four straight times in the USA Volleyball Cup, but then lost to the team twice in August’s Grand Prix.
The Grand Prix, said Kiraly, provided a learning experience for the Americans.
“We learned there were some facets of our game we did a pretty nice job at, and a few that needed some shoring up,” he said. “One of them was our service game, so we’ve been working some on that, and working some on our attack — attacking a little smarter, especially when the other team might have an advantage with their blocking defense.”
And the hot sun of the team’s training base in Anaheim is expected to help in another aspect — conditioning. That could be key, with the United States opening the 24-team tournament with two matches in the span of about 14 hours, beginning Tuesday.
“It has been unseasonably warm and humid (in Southern California), so in that way we’ve been getting a physical and mental challenge, for sure,” Kiraly said. “When we have the challenge of a quick turnaround… we know that we’ll have some of that resilience in the bank. We’re ready to handle the various circumstances that come along with a format that is so difficult to win, like the world championships.”
Rich Scherr is a freelance writer based in Baltimore whose articles have appeared frequently in The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post, as well as numerous other publications. He also serves as the editor of Potomac Tech Wire and Bay Area Tech Wire. Scherr is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.