Members of the U.S. women's indoor volleyball team celebrate at the FIVB Volleyball Nations League on June 20, 2019 in Ekaterinburg, Russia.
The FIVB Volleyball Nations League tournament isn’t for the faint of heart.
The best 16 teams in the world travel all over the planet for five weeks, playing 15 games in three-game stretches, in order to whittle the field down to six who will compete in the final round.
The U.S. women came through all that and are now ready to defend their 2018 title, opening play against Poland on Wednesday followed by a match against Brazil on Friday, all in Nanjing, China.
“The team has done a really nice job so far,” coach Karch Kiraly said. “We have played lots of different people, traveled lots of different places and I think 15 different starting lineups in 15 matches so far, so lots of people making significant contributions to the whole team effort. One of our strengths has been our depth and our ability to adapt, even though we have changing lineups and changing people around us. An area for improvement as we begin the finals is we’re still looking to be a team that is better in transition and hitting out of system. We have continued to hunger for more improvement there.”
The tournament was held for the first time last year — as was the men’s edition — and the U.S. women won with a 17-2 overall record after defeating Turkey in five sets in the gold-medal game. Michelle Bartsch-Hackley was named tournament MVP.
This year’s schedule took the team from Bulgaria to Italy, back home to Nebraska, then off to China and Russia before returning to China for the finals.
“I think we knew a little more what to expect than in comparison to the inaugural VNL year,” Kiraly said of managing the travel. “Knowing what to expect, we’ve made more switch-outs, tried to be good about resting players after their club teams and then doing a proper ramp-up. That has helped us to be smarter in this second year of VNL.”
The U.S. finished this year’s preliminary round with a 12-3 record, good for second place behind China. Last year, the U.S. made just two changes to its lineup throughout the tournament. This year eight players made their Nations League debuts over the first two weeks of the tournament, whereas the team that traveled to China the first time had eight players with world championships experience and four Olympians.
Kiraly declined to single out individual players who’ve stood out thus far in the tournament, saying, “Every single person who’s traveled for some part of Volleyball Nations League has made significant contributions.”
Of the 14 players named to the final roster, however, only two are Olympians: outside hitters Jordan Larson, who competed in 2012 and 2016, and Kelsey Robinson, who helped the team win bronze in 2016.
Outside hitter Bartsch-Hackley is back, and middle Tori Dixon and libero Megan Courtney also bring world championship experience to the table.
There’s youth throughout much of the rest of the lineup, however, including middle Dana Rettke, who still plays at the University of Wisconsin and is the youngest player on the team, having made her senior national team debut this tournament. Libero Mary Lake (BYU) and opposite Jordan Thompson (Cincinnati) also still have college eligibility, while setter Jordyn Poulter, outside hitter Mikaela Foecke, and middles Haleigh Washington and Chiaka Ogbogu all finished their college careers within the last two years.
Opposite Annie Drews leads the team in scoring with 158 points, 17th in the VNL, on 136 kills, 12 blocks and 10 aces. Ogbogu ranks second in the team with 126 points on 89 kills, 24 blocks and 13 aces followed by Robinson with 90 points on 68 kills, 10 blocks and 12 aces.
Setter Lauren Carlini, who started four of the last five matches of preliminary-round play, rounds out the roster.
Rounding out the other side of the Final Six this week are China, Italy and Turkey. Of the five other teams, the U.S. defeated China (3-0), Italy (3-2) and Poland (3-1) and fell to Turkey (3-0) and Brazil (3-1) in the preliminary round.
“They have all played a great tournament so far to earn the right to play here in finals week,” Kiraly said of the other five teams. “All of the teams that are here put together lots of good moments of competitiveness.”
Following round-robin play, the semifinals will be held Saturday and the bronze- and gold-medal matches are on Sunday.