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AU Volleyball: De La Cruz, Team Hentz dominate second-week action

Ali Bastianelli blocks Natalia Valentin-Anderson during Week 2 action/Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited

More than a few eyebrows were raised around Athletes Unlimited volleyball when captain Sydney Hilley opted to make rookie outside hitter Claire Chaussee the first overall pick in Week 2’s draft.

That left a superstar with an impeccable track record in AU, Bethania De La Cruz, on the board for captain Morgan Hentz, who unhesitatingly snapped up the reigning league points champion.

On Monday at Legacy Park in Mesa, Arizona, Hilley and her shellshocked mates learned to their dismay why the player known as “Betty” turned out to be Hentz’s best bet.

Morgan Hentz passes during Week 2/Jade Hewitt, Athletes Unlimited

After a nip-and-tuck overtime first set that went Team Hentz’s way, 28-26, Team Hilley was outscored 25-13, 25-16 in the next two. An aggregate tally of 78-55 left Hentz’s happy crew 3-0 in Week 2 action (losing only one set) and Hilley’s bunch at 2-1.

Bottom line: Simply too much Betty, who recorded an otherworldly hitting percentage of .621 with 16 kills and one error on 23 swings.

While Team Hilley had to keep a wary eye peeled for De La Cruz, veteran opposite Saskia “SassI” Hippe was the difference-making X-factor for the team wearing blue jerseys. The final two points of the OT (and ultimately pivotal) first set came on a sizzling line blast in transition by Sassi that tattooed middle blocker Tori Dixon playing defense in the back row, and on a deep hybrid-float-serve ace by the 32-year-old German national that split passers.

Sassi recorded a noteworthy stat line of 15 kills with two errors on 31 swings (.419 efficiency), two aces and five digs, eye-catching enough to be voted the match’s first MVP. Betty was the MVP2 and Hentz (13 digs and four assists, plus the good sense to draft Betty) the MVP3.

“I was with the Orange team last week and we were struggling a lot,” Hippe said. “Now this weekend was really great with wonderful teammates. I am just thankful that I have this opportunity (with AU) and that I have found my joy for volleyball again. With the team this weekend, our secret, our recipe, was that we had fun together, and that we fought one for the other. I saw so many incredible rallies, which I have never seen in my life, and we had so many of them over these three days. It was just amazing.”

Bethania De La Cruz attacks during Week 2/Jade Hewitt, Athletes Unlimited

After one week away from an AU captain’s chair, De La Cruz returned to a familiar place in the standings, climbing all the way to No. 1. Betty had qualified to draft her team on Tuesday. However, in a development announced during the telecast of the Monday nightcap on ESPNU, De La Cruz has been recalled to the Dominican Republic’s national team to play in the Pan American Games. She will not be active next week, thus cannot be a captain.

Former Marquette standout Jenna Rosenthal, fifth on the leaderboard, will replace Betty as a captain, becoming the first middle hitter to assume that mantle in AU. The other captains for Week 3 will be Leah Edmond, Hentz and Hilley.

Leah Edmond passes during Week 2/Jade Hewitt, Athletes Unlimited

De La Cruz’s 1,874 points total after Week 2 in AU’s non-traditional scoring system included 720 “win points,” 500 from her three matches with Team Hentz; 934 “stat points,” 57 than the No. 2 individual scorer, Edmond; and 220 “MVP points.”

The 36-year-old international standout was voted the first MVP on Friday in a sweep by Team Hentz over Team Linnehan (76-51 aggregate, 25-11, 25-16, 26-24) that featured the second-largest margin of victory in Athletes Unlimited history. De La Cruz ripped 20 kills with four errors on 46 attempts (.348) and picked up two solo blocks. Betty’s physically looming 6-foot-2 presence at the net on the left side was instrumental in limiting dangerous lefty-swinging opposite Willow Johnson, the third pick in the Week 2 draft, to .100 hitting on 30 attempts.

Setter Natalia Valentin-Anderson got in on the fun for Team Hentz with five aces using her crisp “right-to-right” hybrid float serve, an AU single-match record that bettered the mark of four De La Cruz twice logged during the 2022 season.

Then on Sunday, even though she appeared to twist an ankle stepping on a foot underneath the net about midway through the match, De La Cruz blasted 17 kills with two errors on 42 attempts (.357 hitting) and dug 12 balls as Team Hentz defeated Team Edmond (73-64 overall, 25-16, 23-25, 25-23).

De La Cruz was “only” the MVP3 as rookie outside hitter Brooke Nuneviller was voted top honors. The former Oregon sensation cracked a gaudy .435 hitting percentage, making no errors on 42 attempts while ripping 17 kills, and collected 13 digs. The passing prowess of libero Hentz and former libero (with the Ducks) Nuneviller provided a platform of consistency for Valentin-Anderson to exploit throughout a sensational Week 2.

Although her week ultimately ended in a team crash-and-burn, Chaussee enjoyed a highly productive three matches. On Monday, Claire posted 12 kills with two errors on 35 swings (.285) and five digs, giving her 1,397 total points and a five-spots jump up the leaderboard to No. 6.

Chaussee’s gaudy 24-kill effort on Friday against Team Edmond, the fourth-best match total in AU history, came on 50 swings with five errors, a .380 hitting percentage. Hilley’s crew notched a 74-62 aggregate-score victory in which they dropped the second set (25-15, 24-26, 25-21). Sunday’s match saw Chaussee rip 13 kills and make 12 digs, earning her second MVP1 award of the week as Team Hilley rolled over Team Linnehan (75-53 overall, 25-17, 25-18, 25-18).

Setter Hilley made an effort to spread the hitting wealth around in her team’s opener (four players got at least 15 swings), but found Chaussee to be far too tempting of a target to resist.

“I tried to distribute evenly, but it got to the point where Claire had such a hot hand that I was just feeding the beast,” Hilley said with a laugh. “It’s really hard to defend when you have hitters who can score from all over the place.”

Chaussee, the 2022 ACC player of the year for Louisville, was all too happy to be fed.

“Syd said before the game that defense and serve-receive were going to be our keys and that’s what helped us the most” Claire said. “But with that, she can sauce me a buttery set to get kills.”

Rookie middle blocker Kayla Caffey continued to impress when given playing time. Caffey rode the pine on Friday, but stepped into the lineup for Team Hilley on Sunday because of an unspecified injury to Danielle Hart. Caffey rang up 309 points on a stat line that included seven kills with a .545 hitting percentage and five solo blocks.

Caffey also was picked as one of the MVPs for the second time when she was voted MVP3. Veteran middle Dixon had seven kills on an errorless 12 swings (.583) and added two blocks. The dominating block played a huge factor in captain Alli Linnehan’s hitting in negative numbers (minus-.088) with eight errors against five kills on 34 attempts. Caffey concluded the week with five kills and three errors on 13 attempts, plus a solo block and two block assists against Team Hentz.

“Everything we scouted in the report came together,” Caffey said of her team’s effective first line of defense on Sunday. “We all followed the report and it worked out really well.”

Caffey lasted until the 36th pick (out of 44) in the first week’s draft and was taken with the 33rd selection in Week 2. She had a message for the captain’s choosing on Tuesday: “Pick me, guys!”

Competition in Week 2 ended on Monday with Team Edmond getting off the schneid with a victory (69-63 total, 19-25, 25-21, 25-17) over Team Linnehan, which finished 0-3. Team Edmond middle Molly McCage picked up MVP1 honors after cracking 10 kills on .473 hitting, while chipping in five digs and three block assists.

Week 3

Friday, October 20
Team Hilley vs. Team Hentz, 7 p.m., ESPN+
Team Edmond vs. Team Rosenthal, 9:30 p.m., ESPN+
Sunday, October 22
Team Rosenthal vs. Team Hentz, 7 p.m., ESPN+
Team Hilley vs. Team Edmond, 9:30 p.m., ESPNU
Monday, October 23
Team Rosenthal vs. Team Hilley, 7 p.m., ESPN+
Team Hentz vs. Team Edmond, 9:30 p.m., ESPNU