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Leah Edmond sparkles as 2023 Athletes Unlimited Volleyball champion

Leah Edmond wins the 2023 AU Volleyball title
Leah Edmond wins the 2023 Athletes Unlimited Volleyball title

Athletes Unlimited is a non-traditional individual competition, but good old-fashioned teamwork paved the way for Leah Edmond to become its 2023 volleyball champion.

With pressure to stay atop the leaderboard riding on each of her final-week matches and Alli Linnehan nipping hard on her heels, Edmond and her hand-picked crew went 3-0, ringing up the crucial “win points” that helped put captain Edmond on the top step of the podium with 4,313 points, 565 more than her former Kentucky teammate.

Here’s how they finished:
1. Leah Edmond, 4,313
2. Alli Linnehan, 3,748
3. Brooke Nuneviller, 3,582
4. Natalia Valentin-Anderson, 3,369
5. Morgan Hentz, 3,274
6. Bethania De La Cruz, 3,130
7. Lindsey Vander Weide, 3,118
8. Sydney Hilley, 3,114
9. Genesis Collazo, 2,80
10. Claire Chaussee, 2,939
Click here for the complete points list.

On Monday night, in the last of 30 matches over five weeks at Legacy Park in Mesa, Arizona, Team Edmond blitzed Team Linnehan (75-63 aggregate, 25-22, 25-19, 25-22), earning the maximum 180 win points. Rarely can a first set be called pivotal, but that unquestionably was the case.

Desperately needing to capture the opener to have a hope of coming from behind on the leaderboard in the make-of-break Bluegrass showdown, Linnehan’s crew had clawed back from a four-point deficit to go ahead 21-20 on a kill off the slide by middle hitter Molly McCage. That momentum proved short-lived as Team Edmond ran off the next four points. Opposite Genesis Collazo got a kill, middle Shelly Fanning capitalized on an overpass, Erin Fairs cut a shot into the middle of the net for a hitting error and Edmond scored with a booming spike into the deep third of the court. A side-out later, Fanning finished the set by burying a quick set from Puerto Rican standout Natalia Valentin-Anderson.

Failing to close the deal seemingly took the starch out of Team Linnehan (1-2 for the week) and the last two sets went in workmanlike fashion to Edmond and Co. Voted the first Most Valuable Player of the match was the energetic setter Valentin-Anderson, whose team hit .281, had two aces and made 16 digs. The 6-foot-2 Fanning, whose court time had been hit-and-miss in previous weeks, stepped up with 11 kills against one error on 20 swings, a hitting percentage of .500, and was the MVP2. Edmond earned the nod as MVP3 with 16 kills and 16 digs, achieving the noteworthy stat of notching double-digit kills in each of her 15 matches. Collazo’s contribution also was significant: 12 kills and 12 digs.

Linnehan found tough sledding against a block that included 6-foot-4 Kaz Brown, another Kentucky product, and the scrambling defense behind it, hitting just .140 with nine kills against four errors in 40 attempts. Fairs was most effective in the losing effort with a .390 hitting percentage and 10 kills, but her single attack error proved ill-timed.

Edmond’s winning total included 1,740 win points (fourth best overall) and league-highs of 2,193 stat points and 380 MVP points. She rose to the top after finishing 15th in the standings during Athlete Unlimited’s inaugural season of 2021 and sixth in 2022. A captain each week in 2023, Edmond emphasized the importance of familiarity in drafting her squads. Valentin-Anderson, Collazo and Brown had played with her in multiple weeks, outside hitter Lindsey Vander Weide and libero Kendall White had been on her team in Week 4.

“This was the greatest group to end with,” Edmond said. “They were amazing. The personalities are amazing. I love all of them dearly. It was the last time we were going to play together and we just wanted to enjoy every moment that we could and have fun. That was our goal all week.”

A productive Friday for Linnehan

Edmond entered the Week 5 round-robin with a 265-point advantage over Linnehan, but lost some ground after Friday’s matches.

Team Linnehan took a split decision over Team Hentz (81-72 overall, 31-29, 25-27, 25-16) in the opener, with a take-no-prisoners third set after a nip-and-tuck first two, both of which went into overtime. Linnehan enjoyed a huge match, adding 393 points to her total with 140 (out of a possible 180) win points, 193 stat points and 60 more for being noted the MVP1. Linnehan banged 17 kills with one error of 44 swings (hitting .363), made nine digs and picked up a solo block.

McCage, the former Texas star who finished 11th, earned MVP2 honors with nine kills against a single error on 18 attempts (.444 hitting), a solo block and two block assists. McCage’s sharp cutting spike off the slide on a back-set from Nootsara Tomkom was the exclamation point for Linnehan’s crew on its seventh set-point opportunity in the extended first set.

In the nightcap, all went smoothly for Team Edmond against Team Nuneviller through two until the train came perilously close to derailing in a bizarre third set. Her crew responded mightily to captain Edmond’s hungry eyes in the first and second sets, but a vital 60 points for the aggregate nearly slipped out of Edmond’s grasp when they struggled mightily to nail down the essential 11th point in the third.

Working with a 15-point margin after two, trailing 14-7 didn’t seem like too big of a deal to Team Edmond. However, the situation turned deadly serious when Nuneviller’s bunch ran off seven points before a kill by Vander Weide stopped the bleeding at 20-9. An attack error by Bethania De La Cruz put Team Edmond on the brink at 20-10, only to see De La Cruz get a kill, Sydney Hilley block Vander Weide, Kayla Caffey reject Edmond’s blast from the back row and superstar De La Cruz put down another spike.

Now the count was 24-10. But Vander Weide, who played at Oregon, finally clinched the victory (61-60 overall, 25-17, 25-18, 11-25) with a tremdendous sideout crosscourt spike that caromed wildly off of De La Cruz. A kill on the quick by Caffey ended the set in the favor of Team Nuneviller on the next point.

Crisis averted for Edmond, whose personal tally showed 263 points: 140 wins points (the last 60 by the skin of her teeth), 83 stat points and 40 as MVP2. Edmond’s numbers were pretty good: 14 kills with three errors on 33 attacks, plus five digs. Vander Weide chipped in 12 kills and 14 digs. Team Edmond’s defenders did bang-up work against De La Cruz, holding her to .133 hitting (10 kills with six errors on 30 attacks). Forty assists and 12 digs earned Valentin-Anderson the MPV1 award.

Afterward MVP3 Vander Weide said that she and Edmond as outside hitters were “like A and B going together.”

Sunday was a fun day for Edmond

Linnehan had cut Edmond’s leaderboard advantage to 123 heading into the second day of Week 5’s competition on Sunday.

However, Team Linnehan ran into immediate trouble against Team Nuneviller, which got typical production from a motivated De La Cruz during a victory (75-63 overall, 25-14, 25-22, 25-27) in which the aggregate never was in doubt. Only taking the third set in overtime well after the total-score result had been settled salvaged 40 points for Linnehan (12 kills and nine digs), who came away with 116 and trailed by 19 before Edmond even took the court in the nightcap.

Noting afterward that she had been irritated by her high error count on Friday, caused in part by an issue in her neck, MVP2 Betty said that “today was a lot better and we won, so that was very good.”

Dominican De La Cruz ripped 18 kills with five errors on 46 swings, served an ace and made eight digs. MVP1 Nuneviller, the former Oregon star, contributed 12 kills, an ace and 12 digs.

The nightcap saw Edmond take advantage. Her team built a 10-point margin over Team Hentz after the first set and collected 140 wins points (69-57 aggregate, 25-15, 25-17, 19-25). Edmond led a balanced attack with 11 kills and 10 digs, enough to collect MVP3 accolades, worth 20 points. The MVP1 again was Valentin-Anderson, who made five kills on six errorless attempts, dished 40 assists and dug 12 balls.

Edmond’s 275 points, including 115 for stats, pushed her lead over Linnehan to 294 points heading into the teams’ showdown the next night.

In the opener on Monday, Nuneviller finished her first week as a captain with a 2-1 record, defeating Team Hentz (0-3) by split decision (70-53 aggregate, 20-25, 25-20, 25-19). In a defensive slugfest that featured several marathon rallies, MVP1 Nuneviller was a one-woman gang with 17 kills against four errors on 47 swings, 16 digs, an ace and a solo block. Claire Chaussee, the ACC player of the year in 2022 for Louisville, concluded a sensational first season in AU with 13 kills, 14 digs and an ace for Hentz’s unit.

“I just wanted to play ‘normal’ volleyball,” Nuneviller said. “These individual points are really interesting. Those of us who hadn’t played in AU before hadn’t experienced that. I just surrounded myself with awesome volleyball players, especially because I got to pick this week, and I’m excited we got the win.”

Postseason honors

The outside hitters were Edmond and Chaussee, the middles were McCage and Tori Dixon, the opposite was Willow Johnson, the setter was Tomkom and the libero was Hentz. Hentz was named top defensive player and McCage was the top blocker.