U.S. Women Excited to Open Volleyball Nations League at Home

By Bill Kauffman (bill.kauffman@usav.org) | May 13, 2018, 11:41 p.m. (ET)

Jordan Larson
Jordan Larson is back home in Nebraska as she captaining the U.S. Women's National Team as it hosts Italy, Poland and Turkey May 15-17 in Lincoln, Nebraska

LINCOLN, Nebraska (May 13, 2018) – The U.S. Women’s National Team cannot be any more excited to be hosting Italy, Poland and Turkey in the opening week of the inaugural FIVB Volleyball Nations League May 15-17 at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on the campus of University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The Americans will have a rare opportunity to host international matches on home soil as the Volleyball Nations League commences on Tuesday with the U.S. hosting Poland followed by Turkey on Wednesday and Italy on Thursday. Team USA is excited not only to play in front of home fans, but for the location in the United States where fans support volleyball so well.

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“The thing that has us most excited is playing inside our country. We don’t get to do that a ton, “USA Head Coach Karch Kiraly. “And what an honor it is to start this newly named, reformatted and rebranded tournament called Volleyball Nations League here in Nebraska, where women’s collegiate volleyball is supported as fiercely as anywhere else with the attendance records and all the things that University of Nebraska Husker fans do to support their college team. We are hoping they come out and support us, and we are excited to play in a truly fantastic venue.”

Kelsey RobinsonAmong the themes for all four teams competing in Lincoln is learning about their own squads quickly with little preparation heading into the tournament. The U.S. had all of two trainings – on Thursday and Friday – with its entire group together before arriving in Lincoln, Nebraska, late on Saturday. Kelsey Robinson and Kim Hill among others just returned to the team on Thursday, while some of their teammates have been back in the USA gym less than a week.

According to Kiraly, Turkey is in a similar situation. Turkey has experienced limited training together coupled with a friendly match with Belgium this past week, then flew to Lincoln on Friday to compete in Volleyball Nations League.

“Every team faces the same challenge here in the fact this competition is starting weeks and weeks earlier than it has ever started before,” Kiraly said. “We have never started the year with an FIVB competition as early as May 15. Most years we start in early July or later. We all have adjustments to make and it will be a learning process in terms of what is the appropriate amount of rest. Most of our players, especially the ones who just got back this week, got very little of that rest.”

Turkey Head Coach Giovanni Guidetti, despite the challenges ahead, is anxious and curious at the same time for the start of the new Volleyball Nations League.

“We are pretty excited to start this new competition,” Guidetti said. “I am really curious to see how it will work. The idea is pretty good. I want to see the reality of playing on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to be able to fill the stadiums. We had exactly one training so far, and it really is not possible to start the competition with this very short time. Last Sunday there was the European Champions League Final Four, and many players were competing there. It is not a great situation, but we are all in the same way.”

Italy Head Coach David Mazzanti echoed similar sentiments in the quick turnaround for his players going from the pro club season directly into the international season. He has elected to fill his 14-player roster with younger players competing in Lincoln and giving rest to his athletes who went deep into the European Champions League and other domestic pro leagues.

“The Volleyball Nations League is too near the end of the season with the clubs,” Mazzanti said. “I think it is a problem for the show and health of the players. For us it is very difficult to organize the training. In this moment I have two big injuries on my team.”

Despite the challenge of the early start, Kiraly said the new league and playing at home has a motivating factor for Team USA.

“We are all excited to be here because we don’t get to play on USA home court very often,” Kiraly said. “The challenge will be how to get our great USA pieces on the same page most quickly. Every team will have to work out that equation differently. For us it is going to be plenty of video study, trying different combinations of players to see how it all shakes out. But there will be a lot of learning by USA and every other team in the early weeks of Volleyball Nations League because teams have had so little time to train together before they actually compete here.”

USA Capsule
Team USA, ranked second in the world, will enter the inaugural FIVB Volleyball Nations League protecting its home court in a rare set of matches on domestic soil. The Americans have a mixed roster in Lincoln that blends experience and youth. The USA has seven returning Olympians from the bronze-medal winning squad at the 2016 Rio Games, including Jordan Larson and Foluke Akinradewo who also won silver at the 2012 Olympic Games.

Team USA finished the 2017 season with an 18-8 record in which many first- and second-year players saw success with expanded playing time. The U.S. did not play a single match in 2017 with all seven of its returning Olympians on the roster as many took time off early in the season. The Americans finished third at the season-ending FIVB World Grand Champions Cup with five Olympians on the roster. With only two Olympians on the roster, the USA finished fifth at the final FIVB World Grand Prix event in August 2017.

USA is the only women’s indoor team to have reached the podium in the last three Olympic Games, yet they have not reached the top step for gold. In the second year of the Olympic quadrennial, the Americans are building up for the ultimate prize in 2020.

The Americans have an experienced roster in Lincoln with an average age of 27.2 and averaging 91 international matches per player. Akinradewo has played in 223 international matches, while Larson has 219.

“We have lots to learn about our team,” Kiraly said. “Last year we played with lots of different rosters, lots of different players in different competitions. Now we are putting it all together a little bit earlier. So we are excited to put our team out there and see what it looks like in 2018.”

For a detailed season preview on the U.S. Women’s National Team, click here.

Italy Capsule
Italy has surged back into elite prominence following a disappointing ninth-place finish at the 2016 Olympics. Led by rising 19-year-old phenom Paola Egonu and eight Olympians, Italy finished second at the 2017 FIVB World Grand Prix. However, Egonu is not on the Italian roster in Lincoln as head coach Davide Mazzanti has elected to go with a young roster in the opening week of the Volleyball Nations League.

“We will play against Turkey and Poland,” Mazzanti said. “They are young teams like Italy. In the last match (in Lincoln), we will play a strong team in the world, USA. USA will play with its first string of players. We want to have a good experience in the first and second match, then we want to try our level against USA.”

Mazzanti has set the stage for the beginning of Volleyball Nations League with a young roster, but plans to bring on his veteran players later in the preliminary rounds.

“Now the first target is to lot more experience with the young players in the first and second preliminary weeks,” Mazzanti said. “After the second round I will call up the other players. I want to try and play with the first string of my players in the third, fourth and fifth rounds in Italy. For me, the first and second rounds are important for experience. The last three rounds are to improve our game and to try to play all the players on my team.”

The Italians are ranked No. 7 in the world by the FIVB following their resurgence last year. Italy defeated the U.S. two out of three matches at the 2017 World Grand Prix with all three matches taking place in China.

While the Italians had eight Olympians on its initial 26-player roster, they will be markedly younger this week in Lincoln. Serena Ortolani and Miryam Fatime Sylla are the only Olympians on the 14-player roster. Ortolani has played in 279 national team matches and captain Ofelia Malinov is the only other player with more than 60 matches for Italy. The roster averages a mere 22.2 years of age, including a 16-year-old Sarah Luisa Fahr and 18-year-olds Elena Pietrini and Marina Lubian.

Since 1983, the Americans hold a 36-28 advantage over the Italians in the all-time series. After the U.S. defeated Italy in the 2008 Olympic Games quarterfinals, the U.S. has won 10 of the last 15 matches. Italy did defeat Team USA in the 2014 FIVB World Championship Final Six pool play, but the Americans recovered to win three straight matches to capture the World Championship.

Poland Capsule
Poland, one of four challenger teams in the inaugural FIVB Volleyball Nations League, is ranked No. 22 in the world by the FIVB.

Poland’s 14-player preliminary roster has an average age of 23.9 with the oldest player being 29-year-old Gabriela Polanska and the youngest being 18-year-old Martyna Lukasik. The squad is absent of any players with Olympic Games or World Championship experience. Three of the Polish squad – Julia Nowicka, Maria Stenzel and Lukasik – are playing their first international matches for Poland. Polanska gives Poland a size advantage in the middle with her 6-7 (202 centimeters) height.

Poland captured the 2017 FIVB World Grand Prix Finals Round Group 2 title. The Poles had reached the World Grand Prix Group 2 Finals in both 2015 and 2016, but lost in the title match. Before dropping to the second group of World Grand Prix, Poland had finished as high as sixth in 2007 and 2010 in Group One.

“First, our goal is to stay in the Volleyball Nations League for next year,” Poland Head Coach Jacek Nawrocki said. “We now have time for transformation. We have a couple strong players with experience who we have lost this year. We will play for more experience and to take another step to the next level of volleyball, to the top of the class. Last year our national team didn’t have a chance to play with this kind of top-level teams like USA, Brazil. This is very important for us now to take this chance against them.”

The Poles were once one of the top teams in the world, however. They took Olympic bronze medals in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games and at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. Poland won silver at the 1952 FIVB World Championship, followed by bronze in 1956 and 1962 in the same event.

The U.S. has a 13-4 record against Poland since 1983 with 14 of the 17 matches taking place since 2003. The Americans have not faced Poland since defeating their European counterpart 3-0 during the 2013 FIVB World Grand Prix preliminary round in Brazil. Team USA has won nine of the last 10 matches going back to the 2005 season.

Turkey Capsule
Turkey is in its second season with Giovanni Guidetti as its head coach after he led Netherlands to a fourth-place finish at the 2016 Olympics. Guidetti is guiding a relatively young roster with an average age of 23.8.

“For us it will be a very interesting tournament because we are pretty young team,” Turkey Head Coach Giovanni Guidetti said. “There are a lot of changing in the team. We lost a lot of very experienced players for Turkey. We will start with something new, we start with a new generation. We start with a new mentality with a lot of motivation and a lot of challenges ahead. But, of course, at the beginning we will face a lot of difficulties because for sure we are not ready for this level. We are here to learn and to become better every day.”

Turkey is ranked No. 12 in the world by the FIVB based on an 11th-place finish at the 2017 FIVB World Grand Prix, ninth at the 2014 FIVB World Championship and participation in the European qualification tournament into the 2016 Olympic Games.

Turkey missed out on participation in the 2016 Olympic Games after finishing ninth in its debut at the 2012 London Games. The squad has competed three times in the FIVB World Championship – their best ranking a sixth-place finish in 2010 followed by a ninth-place ranking in 2014.

Turkey has won two medals at the European Championships – a silver when they hosted the competition in 2003 and a bronze in 2011 when they beat Italy 3-2 for third place.

The U.S. holds a 13-3 record against Turkey since 1983, with all but two of the matches taking place since 2003. The Americans have won the last five meetings since 2014. Most recently, the U.S. captured a 3-1 win over Turkey during the 2017 FIVB World Grand Prix preliminary round.