It isn’t often that the U.S. women’s national volleyball team gets to play international matches on home soil while chants of “USA! USA!” thunder throughout the arena.
The timing couldn’t be better for the squad to have that opportunity than this week with an Olympic berth on the line.
Team USA will host the NORCECA Olympic Qualification Tournament beginning on Thursday at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the winner of the four-team, round-robin tournament will earn a trip to the Rio Games later this summer. Team USA plays at 8 p.m. ET Thursday and Friday (watch live here) and 9 p.m. ET on Saturday (live on NBC Sports Network).
“It’s a great advantage,” middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo said. “For one, just being in America, where everything is familiar and comfortable, helps. Often times everyone is rooting against us, so it will be nice to actually have people supporting us and cheering for the USA.
“We don’t get that often, so we always get really fired up to play in front of our fans.”
The U.S. team, ranked No. 1 in the world, is coming off a 2015 in which it went 41-6 overall and won gold medals in the FIVB World Grand Prix, Pan American Games and Pan American Cup.
The players hoped to make it an FIVB Triple Crown by winning gold and earning an Olympic berth at the World Cup last September in Japan, but they went 9-2 in the 16-day tournament and won the bronze medal. They had the chance to finish in second place after winning their final match, but China and Serbia both won to take gold and silver. Only the top two teams earned Olympic qualification.
It was a disappointment, but Akinradewo said one of the keys to the team’s success has been seeing failure as an opportunity to learn, improve and work even harder in the gym.
“I think it was a good opportunity for us to see what we needed to work on and what we can do better in our transition game, our blocking defense and with our serving,” Akinradewo said. “You never want to lose, but it allows you to not feel too comfortable and learn that you’re not there yet, and we’re not there yet.”
One month later, the U.S. women finished the 2015 season by winning their third straight NORCECA Women’s Continental Championship. The top four teams from that tournament — the United States, Dominican Republic, Canada and Puerto Rico — will now play this week in Nebraska, with the winner earning Olympic qualification.
USA Volleyball was selected in November to host the tournament, which has the U.S. team opening play against No. 16 Canada on Thursday. The Americans face No. 15 Puerto Rico on Friday followed by the Dominican Republic, ranked No. 7, on Saturday.
The opportunity to play in front of a hometown crowd is not something the members of Team USA take for granted.
“It’s a comfort being in your own country, eating your own food and then having the support, too,” said Kayla Banwarth, who was named Best Receiver at the Continental Championship. “You have fans cheering for you, which normally they’re against us. So to have the fans on your side and of course to have our families there means a lot.”
The U.S. team has played and defeated all three teams in the past several months, including a win over the Dominican Republic in the gold-medal match and Puerto Rico in the semifinals at the Continental Championship. The Americans also beat the Dominican Republic for the bronze medal at the World Cup.
That doesn’t mean that the U.S. players see gold as a given, however.
“We have played these teams a lot and had success, but this tournament is a whole different ballgame,” Banwarth said. “The stakes are higher. All four teams are going to be bringing their ‘A’ games, and it’s do or die, really, so everyone is going to fight their hardest. It should make for some pretty good matches.”
Following the end of last season, team members went their separate ways and played in professional leagues overseas. They reconvened the day after Christmas to begin preparations for this week, including scouting and formulating a plan for each team they’ll face. Just as important, Akinradewo said, is to focus on their own end of the court.
“It’s how we play that determines the outcome, not necessarily the other team,” she said. “I think just like any time, but especially this week, we have to really focus on our side and make sure we’re firing on all cylinders, communicating well and sticking to the plan we came up with.”