The second Athletes Unlimited professional volleyball season begins Wednesday in Dallas. You can click here for the schedule and TV listings. Teams were drafted by first-week captains Bethania De La Cruz, Aury Cruz, Karsta Lowe and Deja McClendon. Team Lowe plays Team Cruz at 6 p.m. Eastern Wednesday (streamed by AU), followed by Team De La Cruz vs. Team McClendon (Bally Sports). 

Getting the first season of its professional volleyball program off the ground was going to have enough uncertainty for Athletes Unlimited no matter what.

The pandemic made for no attendance, cutting off one of the pillars upon which the women’s sports organization was built: Fan engagement. Then, during the run-up to the season, a historic snowstorm rocked Texas, where the five-week season would be staged at Dallas’ Fair Park Coliseum.

But on the court, Athletes Unlimited’s first foray into volleyball — the group started with softball and later added basketball and lacrosse — was a success.

Cassidy Lichtman/JadeHewitt, Athletes Unlimited photo

“I thought year one went better than we could have ever expected,” said Cassidy Lichtman, the former Stanford star who is a member of AU’s volleyball Player Executive Committee. “The volleyball was an incredibly high level. The production quality was amazing … and I thought the fan reaction was great.

“Particularly going in blind, having not seen professional volleyball work in the U.S. — at least not in my life and career — I thought it was beyond what we could have expected.”

Tayyiba Haneef-Park, the former Long Beach State star and USA Olympian, now an assistant at Oregon who coached in the league last season, is AU’s director of sport.

“I think it was an incredible season one, even though we didn’t have fans (in the stands),” Haneef-Park said. “I think we are having almost half our players returning from season one, and, hopefully, we continue to build on that in our future seasons.”

The first serve is Wednesday as AU returns to Fair Park Coliseum. The five-week season wraps up April 16.

Here’s how the unique format works:

The league consists of a pool of 44 players. Each week, four captains choose their roster of 11 players: five outside/opposite hitters, three middles, two setters and a libero. (More on how the captains are selected in a moment.) The teams play three-set matches, and rather than a best-of-three format, the match winners are based on aggregate scoring. To wit: If Team Gold wins the first two sets by scores of 25-23 and 25-22 but Team Blue wins the third set 25-16, Team Blue would win the match with a total three-set score of 70 to Team Gold’s 66.

Team composition changes every week — that’s not a misprint — and there is no team champion. Rather, an individual champion is crowned based on a system of points. Monetary bonuses are attached to the awards.

In addition to the regular match scoring, each player is scored on her volleyball skills. The scoring takes into account each of the skills and works this way:

— 12 points for an ace, minus-8 for a service error
— 8 points for an attack kill, minus-12 for an attack error
— 1 point for an assist, minus-12 for an assist error
— 5 points for a dig off a kill attempt
— 2 points for a good pass, minus-12 for a passing error
— 12 points for a stuff block, no points are deducted for a blocking error

At the end of each week — here is where the captains come in — the top four players on the points leaderboard get to choose the four teams for the following week’s matches. That continues throughout the five-week season.

Once the season concludes, the individual champion is crowned based on the number of points she has accumulated throughout the season. Outside hitter Jordan Larson, a former Nebraska standout, was the inaugural champion with 4,569 points. Larson, who signed a mid-season contract with a pro team in Italy, won’t play AU this season.

The league also named a defensive player of the year, libero Nomaris Velez Agosto. She’s back and will be on Team McClendon the first week.

“Once we get on the court, we’re just thinking about playing volleyball,” Lichtman said. “You don’t think about the point system and what else is going on.”

Added Haneef-Park: “Even though there’s all these different ways of scoring (individually), you move up the leaderboard most when your team wins.”

Season two opens with 19 players returning from 2021. Four of the top six point-scorers are back, and they served as captains for the first week, Dominican national team member Bethania De La Cruz, former Puerto Rico national team member Aury Cruz, former UCLA standout Karsta Lowe and former Penn State star Deja McClendon. They finished second, fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively, in scoring last season.

Each week new captains will emerge based on their point totals.

Obviously, it is far from the format the women have played since they were little girls. Lichtman, however, said she thought the new scoring system was well-received.

“I think we really embraced it from the players’ perspective,” she said. “It’s a new challenge, which is something you don’t often get at this stage of your career. So it was exciting to have to figure something new out.

“If you’re on a team in a traditional league that’s maybe not the best team, you have to spend the whole season on that team. Here, you go one weekend, then you’re going to switch again. It keeps things moving in a different way.

“And I think it provides a sense of camaraderie where we’re absolutely going to compete and fight against each other on the court, but also, that’s your friend across the net. I really kind of like that dynamic.”

Erin Fairs/JadeHewitt, Athletes Unlimited photo

For former Louisville player Erin Fairs, Athletes Unlimited was a welcome change from playing overseas. Being able to see plenty of familiar faces around the court was a big positive, she said.

“I think I was just happy to be playing professional volleyball in the States. That was the biggest thing for me,” said Fairs, who earned first-team All-ACC honors in 2014. “And also all the girls that were here, you’ve heard of them or you’re the friend of a friend. The volleyball world is big but small at the same time. So having us all in one place was kind of mind-blowing to me.

“At the professional level (overseas), you never had more than three or so people on the team who spoke your language or you knew them. It was an awesome experience. It checked all my boxes for what I wanted it to be.”

Lichtman said she was excited to see several of the league’s top players return. Also back are Brazilian opposite Sheilla Castro and Molly McCage, a standout middle who played at Texas, and, along with McClendon, is on the Player Executive Committee with Lichtman.

Several new players are expected to breathe more life into the league. including the first pick in the draft, Utah all-American Dani Drews, who cut short her season in Poland and returned to America. Also new are Thai setter Nootsara Tomkom; Stanford All-American libero Morgan Hentz; Carli Lloyd, the former Cal and USA Olympics setter, not the soccer player; Alisha Glass Childress, a Penn State star and also a USA Olympic setter; and Puerto Rican setter Natalia Valentin-Anderson, who played at Florida International.

Also new  is middle blocker Lauren Stivrins, a three-time All-American at Nebraska, which lost in the NCAA title match to Wisconsin in December.

“There are some huge names here,” Fairs said. “The competition level is just amazing.”

Lichtman said Athletes Unlimited has “set the bar high.” There won’t be major changes to the action on the court. In terms of postseason awards, this season a sportsmanship award will be presented along with the player championship and defensive player of the year.

The players also will vote on what amounts to a six-member all-league team.

Games will continue to be aired by several media outlets — FS1 and FS2, CBS Sports Network, and the Bally Sports regional network — as well as bFacebook, Twitter and YouTube.

The biggest change for this season? The fans.

Last season, Haneef-Park said, was conducted similar to what the NBA did with its “bubble” in 2020. It was a safe, convenient way to get the inaugural season off the ground and get the players familiarized with the format and build camaraderie between them.

Part of the reason Athletes Unlimited chose Dallas as its volleyball hub was for the sport’s popularity in Texas, evidenced by the proliferation of volleyball clubs throughout the state. What’s more, the huge Lone Star girls qualifier will be conducted over the last two AU weekends and AU hopes that attracts plenty of young fans to Fair Park.

“Outside of the times the national team plays (in the U.S.), this is the highest level of volleyball you will be able to see in the USA,” Lichtman said. “So if you’re a volleyball fan, this is exactly where you want to be.

“We have incredible players from all over the world who are going to be playing, and every week there’s a new and exciting team.”

Added Fairs, who hails from the Houston area: “I feel like (having fans) is going to be a game-changer. Being in Dallas, it’s a huge volleyball city, so we’ll get some clubs and families and even just having our family and friends coming is a big deal. I think for sure it will be a game-changer.”

Haneef-Park calls AU’s volleyball road “glorious and endless” and believes the organization and its unusual league can go a long way to widening the sport’s footprint.

“There’s lots of possibility, and I think the players want to see our sport grow right here in the USA,” she said, “and they are looking for ways to help build a sustainable league here.”

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