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AU volleyball: Red-hot Hentz has a team featuring Dixon, Nuneviller, Betty

Tori Dixon fully expects Bethania De La Cruz to do “Betty things,” meaning that even though the superstar outside hitter will be available for only the last two of three matches in Week 4, that’s bad news for the rest of Athletes Unlimited.

Tori Dixon/AU photo

Dixon, the veteran middle hitter with extensive experience on the USA national team, was taken in Round 3 of the fourth-week volleyball draft by captain Morgan Hentz, who tabbed rookie outside hitter Brooke Nuneviller in the first round and snapped up De La Cruz in the second, sixth overall.

Why would Betty, the defending Athletes Unlimited points champion and arguably the best player in the league, have lasted until the third round in AU’s “snake” draft format? On the ESPNU broadcast Monday, when word filtered down that De Le Cruz could be drafted, but would not return from her duty with the Dominican Republic’s national team in time to play in Friday’s match, TV pundit Kevin Barnett flat-out predicted that she nonetheless would be the first player chosen.

Perhaps the prospect of her missing a match, forcing a team to play short-handed, scared off the other Week 4 captains.

But not Hentz, who came in with the luxury of a personal 9-0 record through the first three-fifths of AU’s five-week season. Morgan also had first-hand knowledge of what the complementary OH combination of Nuneviller and Betty could accomplish together during an undefeated Week 2, and might have figured at the worst, as the late, great Meat Loaf sang, that two out of three ain’t bad.

De La Cruz was No. 1 on the leaderboard in Athletes Unlimited’s non-traditional scoring system after two weeks, but stands No. 5 after a week away, which should provide the 36-year-old veteran with oodles of incentive to make up lost ground.

“Betty is Betty. I don’t know whether she can get back all the way to No. 1 (in one week, while missing a match), but she is going to do Betty things,” Dixon predicted. “Betty is going to get her points.”

Athletes Unlimited’s fourth-week 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 captains this week are Hentz, Leah Edmond, Sydney Hilley and Alli Linnehan. The full schedule is below:

Week 4 schedule

Friday, October 27
Team Linnehan vs. Team Hentz, 7 p.m., ESPN+
Team Edmond vs. Team Hilley, 9:30 p.m., ESPN+
Sunday, October 29
Team Hilley vs. Team Hentz, 7 p.m., ESPN+
Team Linnehan vs. Team Edmond, 9:30 p.m., ESPNU
Monday, October 30
Team Hilley vs. Team Linnehan, 7 p.m., ESPN+
Team Hentz vs. Team Edmond, 9:30 p.m., ESPNU
All times Eastern
(The rosters for each team can be found at the end of the story.)
Bethania De La Cruz in first-week Athletes Unlimited action/AU photo

Pins with pop … and more

The burning question heading into Week 4 is: Can Hentz continue to take the rest of Athletes Unlimited prisoner? While firmly establishing the libero position as a factor in the captaincy, mainly because of the critical “win points” she has amassed, the former Stanford three-time All-American has done nothing but win, win, win through three weeks, going 3-0 as a key member of Edmond’s first-week crew and 6-0 at the helm of her own teams.

Hentz went out on a limb (sort of) by drafting De La Cruz. The opening match of the third-week slate on Friday against Team Linnehan might be problematic, but once Team Hentz gets Betty aboard, the odds appear stacked against the opposition. The other outside hitters drafted by Hentz were Brazilian Sassa Gonzaga, who mainly has seen back-row duty for her teams, and Lindsay Stalzer, an AU veteran with limited court time in 2023. They figure to be in the crosshairs in Friday’s opening match.

“Brooke and Betty, these were great choices for Morgan,” said Dixon, who seemed pleased as punch to have been picked to play with Hentz, not against her as in the season’s first three weeks, when she spoke with Volleyball Magazine. “You have the best of both worlds. You have the strongest passer (in Nuneviller) and then the strongest attacker (in De La Cruz).

“Betty is just such a fantastic attacker, with relatively low errors, which is really important in this league and, actually, just crucial, period, in terms of volleyball. So with that combo, even though Betty isn’t going to be here on Friday, we’re going to be hopefully just fine. And then Betty can make her presence known on Sunday and Monday, and make up for those lost points in the last two matches.”

What shouldn’t be overlooked in the big picture is the common denominator in an undefeated record against elite professional competition with different teammates each week: The defensive prowess and floor leadership of libero Hentz.

“Morgan is so, so impressive,” said Dixon, 31, who has played against the best liberos in the world as a long-time member of the USA national team and in elite leagues overseas. “Her defense is crazy. She’s winning all the time here in AU, so obviously she creates some really good team chemistry.

“Defensively, she is insane. She digs everything, which is something every team is aware of. The mindset has been, ‘OK, career-low attempts for Morgan,’ where we are consciously trying to keep the ball away from her.

“I’m really excited to play with her as a middle blocker, because knowing that there is a player who will dig every ball behind me gives me that freedom to jump and dive in, make these big moves. She’s going to cover my butt if a hitter does beat me in a seam. It’s fantastic to have the freedom to block what I see and read.”

The rest of the story

AU’s points system favors players who can rack up kills (under league rules, as in international play, liberos do not even serve), yet Hentz sits No. 2 on the overall leaderboard despite a “stat points” total of 737 that ranks ninth. In a sport in which the “first contact,” frequently is the determiner of success or failure, Morgan has been instrumental in keeping her squads on point.

“Passing-wise, Morgan’s teams have been ‘in system’ a lot,” Dixon noted. “As a middle blocker, I get stoked about that because you always are going to have the opportunity to attack the ball. I’m really excited about playing with Morgan. She’s done a phenomenal job and has really made her presence known defensively. I’m just hoping to keep this winning streak going for her.”

Dixon was chosen 11th overall, six spots higher than in any of the previous three drafts, after a highly productive Week 3 that saw her be voted MVP1 and MVP2 in victories by her team. Hentz then chose opposite Saskia Hippe, the German veteran who played at an uber level (with an MVP1 match after a 15-kill performance) when teamed with her and Nuneviller in Week 2.

“I’m here, too, blocking balls, hopefully,” Dixon said, in what could be an understatement of her role on a potentially dominant squad that includes veteran setter Alisha Childress.

Meanwhile, three other teams will look to strip the “0” from Hentz and her crew.

For the third consecutive week, rookie outside hitter Claire Chaussee was the overall No. 1 selection in the draft, taken by setter Hilley. Those two had a highly effective connection in Week 2.

Veteran middle hitter Molly McCage, who came off of a gigantic week in which she had two MVP1s and an MVP3, lasted until the No. 2 pick, tabbed by Linnehan. The “wraparound” fourth and fifth overall picks in the snake format by Edmond were setter Natalia Valentin-Anderson and outside hitter Lindsey Vander Weide. That represented a significant uptick in the stock of Vander Weide, who had gone 20th, 31st and 14th in the previous drafts.

Week 4 rosters

Facilitator: Dave Rubio
Leah Edmond, OH
Natalia Valentin-Anderson, S
Lindsey Vander Weide, OH
Ali Bastianelli, MB
Génesis Collazo, OPP
Kaz Brown, MB
Kendall White, L
Symone Abbott, OPP
Ray Santos, S
Maria Schlegel, OH
Danielle Hart, Middle Block*
Danielle Hart is inactive but will receive Team Edmond’s win points.
Facilitator: Kayla Banwarth
Morgan Hentz, L
Brooke Nuneviller, OH
Bethania De La Cruz, OH
Tori Dixon, MB
Saskia Hippe, OPP
Blake Mohler, MB
Alisha Childress, S
Sassá Gonzaga, OH
Lindsay Stalzer, OH
Marin Grote, MB
Gabby Blossom, S
Facilitator: Brandon Directo
Alli Linnehan, OH
Molly McCage, MB
Nootsara Tomkom, S
Willow Johnson, OPP
Karis Watson, MB
Katie Lukes, OH
Nomaris Vélez Agosto, L
Taylor Bruns Tegenrot, S
Shelly Fanning, MB
Nia Parker-Robinson, OH
Erin Fairs, OH
Facilitator: Stephen Gbur
Sydney Hilley, S
Claire Chaussee, OH
Yossiana Pressley, OH
Jenna Rosenthal, MB
Aury Cruz, OH
Emma Willis, MB
Kayla Caffey, MB
Deja McClendon, OH
Nia Reed, OPP
Nicole Edelman-Cagliari, S
Amanda Benson, L