Kelsey Robinson sets the ball for USA Volleyball at the FIVB Women's Nations League against Thailand on June 20, 2019 in Ekaterinburg, Russia.
The U.S. qualified for the FIVB Women’s Volleyball Nations League finals with a win on Tuesday and then closed out the preliminary round with two more wins for good measure.
The third-ranked Americans swept Russia Tuesday, battled past the Netherlands Wednesday and then swept Thailand Thursday, all in Ekaterinburg, Russia, to finish with a 12-3 record. That was tied with China for the best record in the 16-team tournament, though a few teams had yet to play their final match.
The Americans won the inaugural Nations League last year, and with Tuesday’s win assured a berth into the Final Six for the second year in a row. Following the 15-match round-robin round, the top five teams, along with host China, will face off in the Final Six from July 3-7, with the winner taking home $1 million.
The U.S. received a boost last week when 2018 Nations League MVP Michelle Bartsch-Hackley returned to the lineup to help power the team to a 2-1 record against opponents all ranked in the top five.
Bartsch-Hackley was at it again this week in Ekaterinburg.
Opening the week against host Russia, the Americans faced deficits in each of the first two sets before coming back to win both, and then they rolled through the third set to take the 25-23, 25-17, 25-18 victory. Bartsch-Hackley scored 16 points on 13 kills to lead Team USA, while two-time Olympic medalist Jordan Larson added 12 points and Chiaka Ogbogu scored 10.
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“A lot of things here are not close to perfect, so this is what I would call a beautiful imperfect match of volleyball,” U.S. coach Karch Kiraly said afterward.
Wednesday’s match was tighter, with the Netherlands forcing five sets before Team USA finally won 25-21, 23-25, 22-25, 28-26, 15-9.
Bartsch-Hackley, playing her first international match at libero, left the scoring up to others, with opposite Annie Drews leading the way with 24 points. Outside hitter Mikaela Foecke added 18 points, all on kills, and Ogbogu scored 15 points.
“They pushed us, and I thought we pushed back,” Drews said. “I thought we made adjustments throughout the match and I’m really proud of that.”
That led to the final game Thursday, when the U.S. moved past Thailand in a clean sweep, winning 25-13, 25-20, 25-17. Opposite Karsta Lowe, a 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, led the U.S. with 20 points, while four others scored in double digits.
The U.S. entered the week with a 9-3 record and in fourth place. Brazil and Italy, who at this time still have one match to wrap up, also entered the final match day at 11-3 and were within two points of Team USA.
Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.