VNL 2024 schedule announced; USA women have Texas stop, men play in Canada
December 8, 2023
October 31, 2023
As the stars of Athletes Unlimited volleyball spin into the home stretch of its five-week sprint, two former Kentucky collegiate bluebloods have put a few lengths between them and the rest of the field.
Leah Edmond is the fourth-round leader with 3,406 points after her team went 2-1 during the penultimate round-robin at Legacy Park in Mesa, Arizona. Alli Linnehan is in second, 265 points behind, after her squad won two of its three. Their All-American college careers with the Wildcats overlapped during 2018 and ’19, and they jockeyed for position at the top of the leaderboard throughout Week 4’s competition, the first of the 2023 AU season that did not see one team win all three of its matches.
Edmond surged past Linnehan (known as Stumler at Kentucky when the Wildcats won the spring 2021 NCAA title) in Monday’s nightcap on the strength of a victory over Team Hentz (70-63 aggregate, 25-16, 25-22, 20-25) in which captain Leah and another former Kentucky mate, 6-foot-4 middle hitter Kaz Brown, aggressively pressed the pace in the first two sets.
Determined to take the starch out of Bethania De La Cruz, Team Edmond sent every ball it could in the superstar outside hitter’s direction. The strategy paid off early as Edmond’s first line of defense recorded six blocks in the opening set, three by Brown, which contributed greatly to nine hitting errors, the key stat in a nine-point disparity that set the tone for the rest of the match.
Team Edmond targeted De La Cruz 43 times in serve-receive. The next highest was Brooke Nuneviller with 12. Betty finished with 12 kills, but didn’t get cooking until the final set, in which Team Hentz (1-2 on the week) salvaged 40 win points with a late dash to the wire after the aggregate horse had left the barn.
Edmond wrapped up a highly productive week with 14 kills (13 coming in the first two sets), nine digs and two blocks, and was voted the match’s first most valuable player, cashing in 60 more points. Brown picked up the MVP2 award by hitting .642 (nine kills on 14 errorless swings) with five blocks and three block assists.
“I just really wanted to finish the weekend strong,” Brown said. “The unique aspect to this league is that you only get one week to play with a specific group of players. I really enjoyed being with this team and the way I could give back to them was by playing my best.”
Behind Edmond and Linnehan on the leaderboard heading into the season’s final draft on Tuesday are Morgan Hentz (2,919 points) and Nuneviller (2,643), who gained a captaincy for the first time.
Nuneviller’s baptism of fire comes with the first pick in the draft’s “snake” format, and the immediate speculation among the TV pundits on ESPNU would be whether Nuneviller would use it to select De La Cruz, the reigning AU points champion. “Betty” is No. 5 in the standings, but at 865 points behind, seems too far back to mount a winning stretch drive.
Or could Claire Chaussee be the No. 1 overall choice in a fourth consecutive draft after a week in which she equaled the AU single-match record with 27 kills? Tune in Tuesday.
Hentz’s personal winning streak in AU of nine matches in 2023 and 11 over two seasons ended in the opener on Friday when her squad lost in a split decision to Team Linnehan (71-68 aggregate, 21-25, 25-22, 25-21).
Captain Morgan had rolled the dice in the Week 5 draft, grabbing De La Cruz with her second pick, even though Betty would not be back until Sunday from duty with the Dominican Republic’s national team in the Pan American Games. The Dominicans, ranked No. 8 in the world, won that competition in Santiago, Chile, without having to use De La Cruz much, sweeping Brazil in the gold-medal match.
Even though Team Hentz earned 40 win points by taking the first set, captain Alli Linnehan (11 kills, 17 digs, two blocks), opposite Willow Johnson (15 kills, seven digs) and middle hitter Molly McCage were instrumental as their group collected the other 140. A momentum-shifting six-point serving run by McCage in the late stages of the third set turned an 18-17 deficit into a 24-18 lead.
Coinciding with that rally was a situational substitution at setter for Team Linnehan, Taylor Bruns Tegenrot replacing the shorter Nootsara Tomkom in the front row. Linnehan punctuated the victory with a thundering crosscourt spike and was voted the match’s MVP1.
“Week 2 was a little big rough, not how we wanted, being the first time as a captain,” Linnehan said after earning her breakthrough victory. “But this was a fresh start with a new group ready to battle with each other. We were really consistent in who we were. We never had super-high highs or really low lows.”
Alli credited veteran OH Erin Fairs for lending stability as a sub.
“Erin came in and did a fantastic job passing,” she said. “Our passing was consistent, which helped us really bounce off it. Kudos to the passing, kudos to Erin for stepping in big tonight.”
Meanwhile, rookie sensation Nuneviller had a solid match statistically with 13 kills and 17 digs, but Team Hentz struggled to find an overall hitting rhythm.
All that would change on Sunday with De La Cruz on the pins. Morgan’s winning touch returned as her squad racked up the maximum 180 win points against Team Hilley (79-68 overall, 29-27, 25-21, 25-20) in the week’s lone sweep.
A nip-and-tuck opening set saw Hilley’s crew serve for the set at 27-26, but Hentz’s bunch finally closed it out on its third try with a kill by Nuneviller. Brooke and Betty were killer B’s over the last two sets, offsetting a stellar effort by stellar rookie Chaussee (18 kills, nine digs), whose only red mark on the stat sheet came from six service errors. Nuneviller was accorded MVP1 honors for her 17 kills on 36 swings with two errors (.416 efficiency) and eight digs. De La Cruz (14 kills, one ace, nine digs) was MVP2.
Afterward, De La Cruz had high praise for her younger teammate, noting that the advice she has given Nuneviller is to play with confidence: “Brooke is so good. When she is really confident, she is unstoppable.”
Team Linnehan consolidated its gains on Sunday, topping Team Edmond in another split-sets victory (75-64 aggregate, 25-22, 25-15, 27-25). MVP1 went to Johnson, whose monster hitting line read 16 kills with two errors on 30 attempts, a .466 percentage. Edmond pushed hard to add the 40 win points for the third set to her ever-growing leaderboard total. Four of Leah’s 14 kills came after the score was knotted at 21 in the third.
Edmond’s crew kicked off its week on Friday with that Athletes Unlimited oddity: Winning the aggregate war after losing two of the three set battles. A seven-point differential in the opener by Team Edmond proved ultimately decisive in a victory over Team Hilley (73-71 overall, 25-18, 26-28, 22-25).
Chaussee was a one-woman wrecking crew with 27 kills on 58 attempts. The kills total tied the single-match AU record set by De La Cruz during the 2022 season and the swings were the most ever in a league match. Adding 11 digs, an ace and a block, Chaussee was tabbed as MVP1.
Edmond had 16 kills and 11 digs, good for MVP2 accolades and 40 additional points.
In Monday’s match, Team Hilley salvaged a 1-2 record even with Chaussee coming back to the pack a bit. Captain Sydney inserted Nicole Edelman-Cagliari, a setter by trade who had rarely seen the court in previous weeks, at opposite and although she hit .000 (one kills against one error on 10 attacks), Nicole contributed seven digs and four blocks. Edelman-Cagliari was voted MVP3 as the X-factor in another of those idiosyncratic “win the war but lose the battles” scenario as Team Hilley took the aggregate total by five points over Team Linnehan (71-66 overall, 25-15, 22-25, 24-26).
The 10-point cushion from the first set gave Hilley’s unit some breathing room until crunch time in the third, when it needed 19 points to clinch but got mired at 18 as Linnehan and Co. scored four real points to go up 21-19. But a sweet connection from Hilley to middle Emma Willis resulted in a sharp kill on the quick and the 19th point that earned 60 win points.
Chaussee found tough sledding against Team Linnehan’s block in the last two sets and was held to .147 hitting with eight kills and three errors on 34 swings. High-flying Yossiana Pressley picked up some of the slack with 13 kills and a like number of digs, warranting MVP1 honors. Linnehan (16 kills with two errors on 36 attacks, 10 digs) boosted her leaderboard total with 80 win points and 40 points as MVP2.