The mix runs the gamut, from 40-year-old Danielle Scott, who is aiming for her sixth Olympics, to first timer Alaina Bergsma, who was last year’s VBM Co-Player of the Year, to the shortest person in the gym, 5-foot-4 veteran libero Nicole Davis.
Karch Kiraly is a new coach with a new team in a new Olympiad. His goal, of course, is gold, especially since the U.S. women won silver the last two Olympics.
In 2008, the team was coached by Jenny Lang Ping, a great player from China. Then last year, the 2012 team was coached by New Zealander Hugh McCutcheon. Ping’s English was different than McCutcheon’s, which is different than Kiraly’s. Kiraly, the Southern California legend, was an assistant to McCutcheon at the 2012 Olympics before McCutcheon left the international game for the University of Minnesota women’s team.
None of that is lost on Davis, who is in her 10th year with the program.
“There’s not a huge difference in terms of the system and the language,” Davis said when speaking of the transition between McCutcheon and Kiraly. “When we went from Jenny to Hugh, we had to learn a whole new language in terms of how we were analyzing volleyball to what we were talking about and the words we were using and what they mean. So the transition from Hugh to Karch has been a lot more smooth.
“We’re still talking the same language, but the context has changed, and the way we want to do things is a little bit different. And the approach [Kiraly and the new assistant coaches] are taking is a little bit different, but the transition’s been pretty smooth.”
“The idea this time around was to take everyone through volleyball camp,” Scott said. “Get the basics of the type of movements Karch wants and all the different skills. My two weeks there was for that, to get me acclimated again and be back in the USA Volleyball gym again and see some of the new girls and get to know them and also learn what techniques we’re going to use and what the theme and philosophy of our team is.”
Which was, she said, “be the best we can be each play … being the best teammate in working toward our goal, which is winning the gold in Rio.”
Davis said that every ball touched in the USA gym is turned into a stat.
“[Before] there was a feeling that the stats were all that mattered,” she said. “Now they’re being used as a goal, as a standard. The approach to the stats is different.”
The team first gathered at the training center in Anaheim, Calif., in May before heading to Peru for the Pan American Cup, which took place in mid-June.
There, the women advanced to the semifinals by defeating Trinidad and Tobago in three, winning a five-setter over Puerto Rico, 15-13 in the fifth, and cruising past Argentina. Outside hitter Kristin Richards Hildebrand was the team captain. After the match versus Argentina, Cassidy Lichtman, an outside hitter, tweeted: “Beat Argentina in 3 so we win our pool, we’re into the semis and officially qualified @USAVolleyball for the 2014 Grand Prix!! Solid night.”
Kiraly told USA Volleyball, “Our players responded well, and I would like to improve our serves, and continue to work on our fast offense.”
Following their quick victory over the Brazilians in the semifinals (25-11, 25-20, 25-22), the U.S. women faced the Dominican Republic in the final where they out blocked the DR 13-3 and took the match (25-12, 25-20, 25-18).
While many of the veterans didn’t make the trip to the Pan American Cup, a familiar name led in stats during the tournament: outside hitter Nicole Fawcett. The Zanesville, Ohio, native was named tournament MVP after collecting 15 points in the final match.
Libero Davis stayed home since she was recovering from a concussion and had only just recently gotten back into action. After a pro season in Brazil, Scott joined the team for the practices but then headed home to Baton Rouge, La. Scott pointed out that Megan Hodge would miss time later in the summer because she was getting married. They said setter Lindsey Berg was expected to join the team later in the summer.
In July the team will play three matches in California against Japan and then in August they will travel to Brazil, Serbia, and Japan for the FIVB World Grand Prix preliminary rounds.
“This group is fairly new,” Davis said. “There are only a few veterans in the gym. I think they learned a lot, and things are coming together in terms of the system and technique. Things are cleaning up and that’s good to see. There’s always a transition when you go from one quad to the next because there’s a lot of change. What’s nice about this group is that even though it’s young, it’s stable. There are a lot of people who carry themselves with maturity and are eager to learn and are catching on really quickly.”
In the meantime the veterans will come in and out of the gym based on their professional schedules. Scott, for that matter, said she wants to spend as much time as possible this Olympiad with the team.
“I’ve only had these two weeks working with [Kiraly] as a head coach,” Scott said, “but it’s going to be great working with him.”
After all, it’s early in the Olympiad but never too early for the players just out of college.
“It’s quite a big leap,” Davis said. She noted that Olympic-level play has more speed and is more dynamic compared to college games. “So there’s a big gap and right away you have to catch up fast. It’s important for the [new] girls to learn from the older girls, but it’s also important for them to own their own space in the gym and have a presence and a sense of belonging to the team. Experience will come more so when it’s game time and we’re facing different teams across the net.”
There’s a lot of experience to gain before Rio in 2016.
“We call this rehearsal for the big day,” Scott said. “What Karch has also done is put a big emphasis on Fridays as often as possible and make it USA Red versus Blue, where we put on our jerseys and have a trial-like championship match. We’re battling it out so when we get to the gold-medal match or an important match we’ll be prepared for it.”
Originally published in August 2013