Lincoln serves as launching point for USA volleyball’s quest for Olympic gold

Lincoln serves as launching point for USA volleyball’s quest for Olympic gold
Former Husker Jordan Larson is working toward her third Olympic games. (The Associated Press)

LINCOLN — With two silver medals and one bronze in the last three Olympics, the USA women’s volleyball team has fallen achingly short of the sport’s top prize.

This week’s start of the newly rechristened FIVB Volleyball Nations League gives the U.S. a chance to see where it stands relative to the rest of the 2020 Olympic hopefuls in search of the Americans’ first gold medal.

U.S. coach Karch Kiraly is betting on experience — and three former Nebraska players — with the roster he’s assembled for the three opening-round matches Americans will play this week at the Devaney Center. The USA, ranked No. 2 in the world, opens the tournament against No. 22 Poland on Tuesday, followed by matches with No. 12 Turkey on Wednesday and No. 7 Italy on Thursday. All matches are set to start at 7 p.m.

With an average age of 27, the USA will have the most experienced roster of the four teams in Lincoln. Kiraly included seven players from the team that won bronze in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, including former Husker Jordan Larson, who at age 31, remains one of the world’s top outside hitters.

Each of the other three teams in the Lincoln pod come in with an average age of 22. Kiraly hopes his core of Olympians can put the Americans ahead of the curve in the 16-team Volleyball Nations League, which will send the Americans to three continents over five weeks. It can also ready the USA to defend its title from the 2014 world championships, which will be held this fall in Japan.

“This is our one big opportunity,” Kiraly said, “to learn about what we’re good at, what we’re not, what we need to get better at before a huge event at the end of the year, the world championships.”

The Americans will be most experienced in their front-row attacking positions. Larson joins fellow former Husker Kelsey Robinson and Kim Hill as returners from the last Olympic cycle. Former Illinois star outside hitter Michelle Bartsch-Hackley also was added to the USA’s 14-player roster for this week.

Larson, who’s attempting to make her third Olympic roster for the 2020 Tokyo Games, said this week is less about the Americans’ big-picture goals than getting refamiliarized with their teammates on familiar soil. With professional seasons in Europe recently ending, the team had just two days to train in California last week before coming to Lincoln.

“I think it’s too far ahead to think about 2020 right now,” Larson said. “I think right now we’re just focusing on trying to get better every single day. This is an opportunity for us to all come from overseas, we’re all over the world, and figure out what we need to be better at by the end of the summer.”

But the bitter taste of again falling short of gold in Rio clearly lingers, said former NU All-American Justine Wong-Orantes. The Huskers’ all-time digs leader, who made her Team USA debut last year, is competing with Amanda Benson to succeed current NU assistant coach Kayla Banwarth as the USA’s starting libero.

“You can tell by the older girls, by their mindset, their intensity,” Wong-Orantes said. “Even going to practice, Jordan is just on us like constantly just because, for her, she’s been to two Olympics. She feels like there’s definitely unfinished business, and we’re right on board with her. We want that as much as anyone.”

The Volleyball Nations League is a repackaged version of the FIVB World Grand Prix, a tournament in the tier below the world championships and Olympics. But organizers repacked the event this year, adding four more teams to bring the total to 16, while boosting the prize money to $1 million for the winning team.

After five weeks of round-robin preliminary play, the teams with the five best records will join host China in the final round from June 27-July 1. The matches will be streamed live on the FIVB’s new streaming service through FloVolleyball.

This week marks the first time since the Rio Olympics ended, Kiraly said, that the core of his program will have played together. Most of the players on the 2016 unit, including Robinson, took time off in 2017, allowing younger players like Wong-Orantes to make their USA debuts.

One spot to keep an eye on for the Americans will be setter where Carli Lloyd, the USA’s back-up in 2016, is trying to claim the top job. Lloyd was named the USA’s indoor player of the year in 2017 despite missing part of the year with a shoulder injury. Kiraly also brought former Penn State star Micha Hancock to Lincoln for this week’s play.

“I think we have some newcomers,” Larson said, “and it’s important that we allow them to come in and understand the culture that we set, and what we plan to do for this quad, and what we missed out on last quad, and what our new goals are for this quad.”

The event brings the USA women back to Nebraska for the fourth time in five years. Team USA qualified for the 2016 Olympics in a NORCECA qualifying tournament at Lincoln’s Pinnacle Bank Arena and won the 2015 World Grand Prix at CenturyLink Center. Ralston Arena also hosted the 2013 NORCECA Continental Championship.

The Americans get limited opportunities to host international matches, Kiraly said, and when they do, it has often been in front of sparse crowds in California. The Huskers’ home-court advantage has turned heads within USA volleyball, and with three NU products wearing stars and stripes this week, Kiraly expects raucous support as the run to the World Championships and the 2020 Olympics kicks off.

“I guess you could say everybody loves to beat Nebraska in college volleyball and everybody loves to beat the USA in international volleyball,” Kiraly said. “Nobody goes easy on us. Everybody wants to bring their toughest game. That’s something Huskers in particular are used to. They know that there’s always a target on us.”

Team USA roster

Number, Name, Position, Height, College

1, Micha Hancock (setter, 5-11, Penn State)

3, Carli Lloyd (setter, 5-11, California)

4, Justine Wong-Orantes (libero, 5-6, Nebraska)

5, Rachael Adams (middle blocker, 6-2, Texas)

6, Tori Dixon (middle blocker, 6-3, Minnesota)

8, Lauren Gibbemeyer (middle blocker, 6-2, Minnesota)

10, Jordan Larson (outside hitter, 6-2, Nebraska)

11, Annie Drews (opposite hitter, 6-4, Purdue)

12, Kelly Murphy (opposite hitter, 6-2 Florida)

14, Michelle Bartsch-Hackley (outside hitter, 6-3, Illinois)

15, Kim Hill (outside hitter, 6-4, Pepperdine)

16, Foluke Akinradewo (middle blocker, 6-3, Stanford)

20, Amanda Benson (libero, 5-7, Oregon)

23, Kelsey Robinson (outside hitter, 6-2, Nebraska)

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