By Karen Price | Oct. 04, 2018, 12:25 p.m. (ET)
Members of the U.S. women's volleyball team celebrate a point at the FIVB World Championship on Oct. 4, 2018 in Kobe, Japan.

 

Four years after winning the first world title in program history, the U.S. women’s volleyball team began its title defense with an undefeated 5-0 record in the opening round of the FIVB Women’s World Championship in Japan.

As Pool C leaders, the U.S. will be among the four teams from each pool that move on to the second round. The 16 remaining teams will now be split into two pools of eight, with Pool C joining Pool B, and then the top three from each will comprise the final six that move on to the third round. The top four teams from that round move to the semifinals.

After playing the first round in Kobe, Japan, the team will now travel to Osaka on Friday and begin second-round action on Sunday.

With four games in the books, the U.S. and Russia came into Thursday’s first-round finale having both already clinched a berth in the second round. Team USA won the five-set match to win the group, with Russia placing second.

The U.S. dropped the first set then took a 2-1 lead before Russia evened it up to force a tiebreaker. Team USA came away with a 19-25, 25-20, 26-24, 12-25, 15-11 victory with Olympians and outside hitters Kim Hill leading the way with 19 points and Jordan Larson, a two-time Olympian, contributing 16.

The other six Olympic veterans on the squad are middles Rachael Adams and Foluke Akinradewo, opposites Karsta Lowe and Kelly Murphy, setter Carli Lloyd and libero Kelsey Robinson.

The matches had been getting tougher for Team USA as the tournament went on.

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The Americans swept No. 24 Azerbaijan 29-27, 25-21, 25-21 to open the tournament nearly a week ago. Despite some tournament-opening nerves that saw the Americans rally from deficits in the first and third sets, four players finished in double-digits in scoring led by Hill with 12 points and Larson with 11. They followed that up with a convincing 25-11, 25-12, 25-11 victory over No. 34 Trinidad & Tobago in which Michelle Bartsch-Hackley led with 15 points and Tori Dixon added 13.

Team USA lost its first set of the tournament against No. 10 South Korea on Tuesday but came back for a 19-25, 25-21, 25-21, 25-18 victory that bumped the squad to 3-0 in Pool C and qualified it for the second round. Murphy came off the bench to score 19 points, while Adams was just behind her with 14 points. Dixon, Larson and Hill all had 10 points. 

The U.S. improved to 4-0 with a hard-fought 25-17, 25-16, 23-25, 21-25, 15-11 win over Thailand on Wednesday, breaking the fifth tie of the tie-breaking set at 6-6 with three unanswered points to get some breathing room against a tough defensive opponent. Bartsch-Hackley led the team with 23 points.

Bartsch-Hackley is coming off a dominant performance at the inaugural FIVB Volleyball Nations League earlier this summer. She was named MVP as the U.S. went 13-2 to win the event.

The world championship continues through Oct. 20 in Japan.

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.