VNL 2024 schedule announced; USA women have Texas stop, men play in Canada
December 8, 2023
October 13, 2023
The draft for Week 2 of Athletes Unlimited’s volleyball season effectively dismantled the purple gang that terrorized its competition in the opening round, spreading the wealth of its seven starters among the league’s four teams.
The juggernaut crew in the purple jerseys assembled by captain Leah Edmond to kick off AU’s five-week schedule produced all four of the captains, that status having been determined by the players who finished 1 through 4 on the leaderboard.
In a format that shuffles its squads weekly, outside hitter Edmond, OH Alli Linnehan, libero Morgan Hentz and setter Sydney Hilley morphed from Week 1 teammates to the opposition. After the draft conducted on Tuesday, Edmond had retained opposite Genesis Collazo, Hentz would continue to defend behind middle hitter Jenna Rosenthal’s huge block, and Hilley could stay connected with middle Danielle Hart, her college mate at Wisconsin.
Odds are long that any of the four new lineups will match Team Edmond’s first-week results, a rare 3-0 record in matches and 8-1 mark in sets that generated 500 out of a possible 540 “team points,” 60 for each aggregate-score match victory and 40 for each winning set.
Athletes Unlimited’s second-week round-robin will be held Friday, Sunday and Monday, with five matches streamed on ESPN+ and the nightcap on Monday aired on cable ESPNU. All times are Eastern:
The team component had such influence on the leaderboard that the top scorer in individual “stat points,” explosive veteran Dominican outside Bethania De La Cruz, who tacked on 100 “MVP points,” could climb no higher than seventh, slotting behind the four Week 2 captains, plus Collazo and Hart. Thus ended De La Cruz’s record streak of 10 for wearing an AU captain’s mantle that dated to the inaugural 2021 season.
Hentz parlayed 500 team points, 321 stat points and 60 MVP points to a third-place finish on the leaderboard, becoming the first libero to qualify as an AU captain through its scoring system that is weighted toward pin hitters and setters. She was seventh in points overall as a rookie in 2022, when she was honored as defensive player of the year. The former Stanford three-time All-American set the league record for digs in a match with 25 on the first day of the 2023 competition at Legacy Park in Mesa, Arizona.
“The team Leah put together had really nice chemistry and communication, which made everyone’s lives easier on the court,” Hentz told us. “We really focused on our serve-pass game as well as defense. Our blockers did a fantastic job throughout all three matches of putting up such a solid block that it just made it so easy for our defenders to read the attackers. I also liked it that if we didn’t win a point, we moved through it pretty quickly. We didn’t hold on to that last point, we were about what’s in front of us.”
Hentz was so intent on the task at hand that she “didn’t even realize I was that high up the leaderboard until after our last match.”
“Whenever I’m playing with AU, I try hard to not look at the leaderboard,” she said. “I’m just trying to win (while) having fun on the court with my friends. What’s important to remember about AU is that you earn the most points through winning. Because our (first-week) team had so much success, it put me in a good position to become a captain.”
Hentz had the second selection in the draft and snapped up De La Cruz, the 2022 AU points champion, after Hilley made outside Claire Chaussee the first pick. Chaussee, the former Louisville star, made her AU debut and she finished 11th in the standings, while compiling 31 kills with 12 errors on 89 attempts, a .213 hitting percentage.
“I was definitely surprised,” that De La Cruz was there, “and feel lucky that she’s on my team because she’s a fantastic player,” Morgan said. “As a libero, I do nothing for the offense. So I really needed to go for some strong attackers first, and build around it from there. Getting two outsides was my first priority.“
Accordingly, Hentz tabbed rookie outside Brooke Nuneviller, the former Oregon star who is from Phoenix, in the next round, seventh overall, in no small part because of the familiarity factor.
“Brooke and I were in the national-team gym the last two summers,” she said. “I love the way Brooke plays with a lot of heart, extremely scrappy, and she’s a great passer. Betty is a fantastic passer, too, so they should complement each other really well.”
The 6-foot-5 Rosenthal was picked up in the third round (10th overall) after Hilley had taken Hart, her former Wisconsin teammate, off of the board with the previous pick.
“Jenna did an awesome job for us in Week 1,” Hentz said. “She’s just a big presence at the net. Jenna gets her hands in the right place, but she’s also extremely offensive and can really terminate.”
The setter position was filled next when she selected veteran Natalia Valentin-Anderson, who was lauded by Hentz “for the energy she brings,” and her leadership skills.
Hentz was highly reluctant to make any predictions on how the team she crafted might fare, noting the rarity of match sweeps in this format and that AU competition can be, “a set-to-set kind of thing.”
“I’m looking forward to connecting with my team more and more,” she said, “and then bringing our best when it comes to Friday.”
Other highlights of the Week 2 draft saw opposite Willow Johnson (15, 17 and 18 kills in her opening-week matches) taken No. 3 overall by Linnehan, who added slick veteran setter Nootsara Tomkom (sixth overall and one of the first-week captains) in the second round and middle Ali Bastianelli (11th overall) in the third. Hilley snagged dynamic pin hitters in Chaussee and high-flying Yossiana Pressley (fifth overall) plus Hart. And with the fourth and fifth overall choices, Edmond opted for experience in setter Alisa Childress and middle Molly McCage.
Rookie middle Anota Adekunle was injured early in her first match last week and is out for the season, so the draft numbered 43 players. On Thursday, Athletes Unlimited signed middle Blake Mohler and she will join Team Linnehan as its 11th player. The 6-foot-2 Mohler was a collegiate standout at Purdue, last playing there in 2019.
The rosters are at the end of this story.
Hentz, 25, has played one season of professional volleyball overseas (with a team in Dresden, Germany, in 2020-21) and was frank in saying that she has no wish to do that again.
“I wasn’t happy overseas,” she said. “I’m a lot happier when I stay in the States, closer to family and friends. I just wasn’t happy being so far away. The opportunity that Athletes Unlimited provided in the U.S.(in 2022), I took advantage of that. I found my love for the game again.
“I just figured that, for me, playing in the U.S. is just a lot more fun. Honestly, liberos don’t make much money signing contracts overseas. So I can be more financially stable staying here as well.”
After the short AU season, Morgan has signed to play for the Atlanta Vibe in the startup Pro Volleyball Federation. Some of her Vibe teammates will include Edmond, Linnehan, Bastianelli, Adekunle and Shelly Fanning.
Representing the red-white-and-blue in major international competitions, even the Olympics, remains a possibility for the 5-foot-9 Hentz, who has been in the gym with coach Karch Kiraly’s USA national-team program in 2022 and 2023. She and Justine Wong-Orantes were the two back-row specialists when the USA clinched its 2024 Paris Olympics bid last month.
“I’ve really enjoyed my time with the national team and I feel as if I have grown a lot, purely by playing against the best in the world,” she said. “It’s such an honor and a huge, huge opportunity.
“It’s a year-to-year thing for me. I’m just trying to have fun with it, and if I am still given the opportunity to be in the U.S. gym, I would love to be there. But if they’re going in a different direction, then I understand. The U.S. has so many talented players, an embarrassment of riches, and that decision really is up to the coaching staff.”