VNL 2024 schedule announced; USA women have Texas stop, men play in Canada
December 8, 2023
November 3, 2023
Leah Edmond’s priority through four-fifths of the Athletes Unlimited volleyball season was to run a clean race. Now that the final lap is here, her focus has shifted to crossing the finish line in first place as the final round of matches begins Friday.
In the hunt during AU’s previous two campaigns, Edmond has put herself in the catbird’s seat to take home the points championship, the grand prize in a league that is best described as an individual competition within a team framework.
Making incremental yearly jumps in the standings, the charismatic former Kentucky All-American has moved up from 15th in the inaugural 2021 season to sixth in 2022, and stands atop the 2023 leaderboard with 3,406 points heading into the final three matches. She is the only athlete to sit in the team captain’s chair for all five weeks.
Edmond holds a 265-point advantage over Alli Linnehan, thanks to a consistency that has seen her finish first, eighth, third and second in the weekly points chase, while her former Kentucky teammate has gone second, 39th, first and first.
During the last day of the fourth-week round-robin, Linnehan had leapfrogged to No. 1 after the first of the two matches, providing Leah with ample incentive in the nightcap. Team Edmond took two of the three sets and the aggregate, picking up 140 vital “win points” to go 2-1 on the week.
“You try not to keep the leaderboard on the forefront of your mind, but with how the league works, it’s hard to not know that it’s there and act like it’s invisible,” Edmond told us. “In the back of my head, I knew that Alli had passed me and I knew where I wanted to be finishing out the week. But it was more (in Monday’s match) that I wanted to play the best game I could and I felt the past couple games, I hadn’t played as cleanly as I could have. That affects the leaderboard when you’re not playing clean (since errors carry heavy point penalties).
“Yes, I wanted to get back to No. 1. I knew I had to play a really, really good game and my team needed to win in order to do that. Winning sets and winning matches is huge. My first year playing in AU, I had a ton of ‘stat points,’ but I wasn’t winning. My stat points kind of held me up there, but after a while, it wasn’t enough.
“Last year, I had a little better happy medium, I had more (points) in wins than I had in stats. This year, I finally evened it out. Lots of wins, lots of stat points and it has all come together.
“The wins play a huge part and not letting opponents sweep is the big, big thing. You have to at least get one set, because letting them score all 180 points is detrimental not only to you, but to everybody else in the league.”
AU leaders through four weeks
Leah Edmond, 3,406 points
Alli Linnehan, 3,141
Morgan Hentz, 2,919
Brooke Nuneviller, 2,643
Bethania De La Cruz, 2,541
Edmond’s leaderboard breakdown shows 1,280 win points (in the top 79% of AU’s 44-player roster), 1,826 stat points (No. 1 in that category by a margin of 323) and 300 “MVP points” (also No. 1). In 2022, her win-to-stats ratio was 1,600 to 1,197 and in 2021, it was 960 to 1,380. Her explosive right arm has been a major point-scoring factor, with a league-high 183 kills (an average of 5.08 per set) and a gaudy (for an OH at this level) .309 hitting percentage through 12 matches.
Athletes Unlimited’s season-ending round-robin will be contested Friday, Sunday and Monday at Legacy Park in Mesa, Arizona. Four matches will be streamed on ESPN+, and the nightcaps on Sunday and Monday will air on cable ESPNU. The Week 5 captains are Edmond, Linnehan, Morgan Hentz and first-timer Brooke Nuneviller. Note that the match times on Sunday and Monday are an hour later than what they had been in the first four weeks. The full schedule is below:
The captaincy provided Edmond with the opportunity to execute a plan in the final draft that fills her with confidence.
“I have six of the seven starters from last week back on my team again,” Leah said. “My big goal in the draft was to keep that team together. The Friday and Sunday matches (last week) we struggled a little bit, weren’t playing to our full potential, but on Monday I saw all of the things that I had known that we were capable of doing, to play that clean and execute so well.
“Ending the week on a high note and then getting everybody but one of the middles back, going into this week (that) will make everything so much smoother. You know exactly what everybody wants, you know their tendencies, what we need to do to win games, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
If familiarity breeds success, Edmond’s team figures to have an edge. Leah made the same “wraparound” picks in the draft’s “snake” format in the first and second rounds (fourth and fifth overall) as she had in Week 4, snapping up setter Natalia Valentin-Anderson and outside hitter Lindsey Vander Weide. In Rounds 3 and 4 (12th and 13th overall), Edmond tabbed opposite Genesis Collazo and middle hitter Kaz Brown. In the fifth and sixth (20th and 21st overall), her choices were middle Karis Watson and feisty libero Kendall White.
Valentin-Anderson was Edmond’s setter in Weeks 3 and 4, Collazo her opposite in Weeks 1, 2 and 4, and Brown one of her middles in the previous two weeks. Watson was the only pick among Leah’s first six who hadn’t played with her yet.
Puerto Rican mighty mite Valentin-Anderson, the points runner-up in 2022, has enjoyed another highly productive AU season, excelling not only in running her teams’ attacks but on defense. She is tied for fourth in the league with 121 digs (10.1 per match), which includes five double-digit efforts, and at 5-foot-6, has picked up at least one solo block in eight of 12 matches. Natalia also has been one of the most effective servers with 11 aces, tied for second overall.
The 6-foot-4 Brown, another decorated collegian out of Kentucky, has flourished during her tenure with Team Edmond. In three Week 4 matches, Brown totaled 11 blocks and six block assists, while hitting at .442 efficiency (22-for-43 with three errors).
“Kaz has been fantastic and she’s gotten progressively better every single game,” Edmond said. “This will be the third week I’ve had her and we can just see how much better it’s getting. It’s so beneficial (in fine-tuning the connection) to have a middle with the same setter for such a long time.”
The Kentucky connection she shares with Linnehan, her closest pursuer on the AU leaderboard, is not lost on Edmond, who grew up in Lexington. Linnehan’s hometown of Floyds Knobs, Indiana, is right across the Ohio River from Louisville.
“It’s super-exciting,” Edmond said of having stars with Bluegrass roots sitting first and second in a professional volleyball league in America that can be seen on national cable TV (ESPNU). “I hadn’t watched Alli play since her senior year because she went overseas for a little bit, so just seeing how much she has grown as a player and as a person has been so much fun. Knowing that potentially we can be 1-2 (in AU) is a huge storyline this week in Kentucky.
“It has been so much fun to be around her and to play with her again, it brought me back to Kentucky times. It puts a stamp on how well we really do complement each other in our playing styles and who we are as people. I know her every little movement and her tendencies, so it’s fun to see her try to beat me around that, and the same for her knowing what my go-to shots are.
“During our game (this past week), I was like, ‘Can you hit a ball please? Just hit one. I’m tired of picking up your shots. I would love to dig a hard ball.’ And she was like, ‘Never!’ So it’s been fun, especially when we are mic’d up (for TV) and it’s Kentucky vs. Kentucky. But I’m not going to blow you up, Alli, I promise. I will not aim for your head.”
Earning a captain’s role for the second time in her rookie season, Linnehan (who was Stumler when Kentucky won the spring 2021 NCAA title) drafted a veteran team that includes crack middle Molly McCage (No. 8 on the leaderboard), wily setter Nootsara Tomkom and dynamic lefty opposite Willow Johnson. The whole shooting match for the points championship quite likely will come down to the season’s last gasp between Team Edmond and Team Linnehan in the nightcap on Monday, televised on ESPNU.
The other highlights of the final draft on Tuesday came when rookie sensation Nuneviller grabbed superstar Bethania De La Cruz with the No. 1 pick. That left rookie Claire Chaussee, who had been the first overall choice three weeks running, for Hentz to snap up at No. 2. Brooke also got an exceptional setter in Sydney Hilley (a captain in Weeks 2, 3 and 4) and productive middle Jenna Rosenthal. Hentz opted not to take a setter until the fifth round (18th overall) and her choice was Taylor Bruns Tegenrot, who had not been selected earlier than 25th.