DALLAS, Texas — Volleyball is a team sport, but in Athletes Unlimited Volleyball, there’s an individual champion. And this year it’s Dominican Republic star Bethania De La Cruz.

When the five-week second season for Athletes Unlimited ended Saturday in Dallas, De La Cruz stood atop the leaderboard with 4,652 points from a competition that awarded (or deducted) points for various statistics, including kills, aces, blocks, digs, assists and errors.

Second place went to Puerto Rican setter Natalia Valentin-Anderson, who was way behind with 3,357 points. 

Former Utah star Dani Drews, who left her pro team in Poland in midseason and joined AU just before the first week, was third with 3,308 points and followed by former Stanford great and USA national-team member Cassidy Lichtman (3,279) and setter Nootsara Tomkom of Thailand (3,207).

Not coincidentally, the top four in points were also the four captains the last weekend. Each week, the top four players from the week before got to choose their teams in a draft.

Athletes Unlimited also chose a “Dream Team” for the season — outsides De La Cruz and Drews, setter Valentin-Anderson, libero Morgan Hentz, middles Molly McCage and Jenna Rosenthal, and opposite Sheilla Castro, the Brazilian veteran who left before the last weekend.

De La Cruz had league-highs of 233 kills and 18 aces. Hentz, a three-time national champion at Stanford, led with 229 digs. 

Bethania De La Cruz celebrates winning AU’s 2022 volleyball season/AU photo

All the players who participated were paid a salary for their time in Dallas and awarded bonuses for performance, including at season’s end.

The field of players, however, was impacted greatly by injuries. Among those who started but couldn’t finish the season were former national-team player Karsta Lowe and former Nebraska star Lauren Stivrins. 

What’s more, last year’s individual champion, Olympics star Jordan Larson, was expecting to play in Athletes Unlimited but instead signed a contract to play professionally in Italy in February.

‘Best pro experience’

AU, which also has women’s softball, basketball and lacrosse, started volleyball in 2021, but the season was played in a COVID-induced bubble in Dallas, also at Fair Park Arena on the Cotton Bowl fairgrounds.

“I think it’s been a terrific season,” said Jon Patricof, AU’s CEO and co-founder. “What I’ve heard from the players is the experience surpassed last year’s. I think the quality of play has been tremendous overall in intensity and spirit. They’ve been here seven weeks, five of the season and two weeks of preseason, and people don’t want to leave. What I get to hear from so many players is this is the best professional experience they’ve had in their lives.”

Patricof said that many of the young players have told him they appreciated being able to play professionally and learn from the veterans. 

“The reality is during the season, you really have your head down and are focused on executing,” Patricof said. “But absolutely I spend plenty of time thinking about the future and where we want to head.”

The matches, six per week, were televised on FS1, FS2, CBS Sports Network and also on the AU digital platforms, its Facebook page and YouTube channel. Often, the first match was on one outlet and the second match on another.

“We’ve had a really good mix of TV distribution and our digital exposure. We’re trying to think through what the right mix is,” Patricof said. “The fans have really appreciated having games on YouTube and Facebook and having them accessible, but being on television means a lot, as well. It’s important for everybody. It’s important for the fans, it’s important for the players, it’s important for the advertisers, so we’re looking for that right balance.”

Patricof praised his organization’s social-media presence and said he’d like AU volleyball to have a bigger impact on the sport in the offseason.

Will AU return to Dallas?

“We’re thinking about it. It’s been a great home. Everyone knows how big the volleyball community is in Texas. We really love this venue,” Patricof said, adding that he hopes to have a location decision announced as early as possible.

Indeed, and by not moving, AU doesn’t have to pick up its Taraflex court each week or transport the whole operation to another location.

“It’s a good home for us,” Patricof said.

Others following AU format

One could argue that AU volleyball is almost a made-for-TV venture, since its broadcasts are top-notch and innovative, and the Fair Park Arena makes for an outstanding studio.

“If you think about it, a lot of leagues are following our model,” Patricof said. “The USFL is opening this weekend in Birmingham with eight teams teams in the league, all representing different cities, but guess what? Every team is based in Birmingham. 

“All I’ll say is the truth is the Athletes Unlimited model is not the only model, but there are a lot of people replicating what we’re doing. I think the USFL is probably the most relevant example right now, but I think we have a very smart model. And think about it, last year we had no fans. This year we have fans, and the numbers are growing each week.”

Attendance was sparse, but the crowds for the last two weekends got a boost from participants in Dallas for the huge Lone Star Classic USA Volleyball girls qualifier.

AU also capitalizes on what Patricof called its “network of leagues,” volleyball and the other three sports.

“Operationally it’s a big part of how we make this work in a big way and how we make things look so good,” he said. “We have a lot of shared resources.

“We’ve talked to the athletes, and the athletes in each of the sports have historically only connected with athletes in their own sport. For the first time, we’ve got athletes who are connected across sports with their fellow athletes. There are over 250 athletes in the Athletes Unlimited community. They’re starting to connect.

“And the second thing is that from a fan perspective, a big part of our fan base, what we call volleyball nation or softball nation or lacrosse nation or basketball nation, we’re finding that they’re fans of Athletes Unlimited now. And they’re coming in to watch volleyball but sticking around to watch lacrosse or sticking around for softball. I love to see that, people who love the model, love the values, love the quality of play, love the broadcast. We want fans to come for one sport and stay for four.”

At least two other domestic pro ventures are on the horizon, including one by the volleyball organization LOVB. 

“We focus heavily on what we’re doing. What we’ve shown in other sports is we’re very happy to collaborate,” Patricof said. “We want to grow the sports overall. Whatever anyone else does, I hope they’re good for the athletes and there’s some level of consistency and continuity.”

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