Kara Bajema can flat out unload on a volleyball.

“She has got an arm,” USA coach Karch Kiraly said.

The 6-foot-2 outside hitter, the former Washington All-American, had a couple of outstanding matches for the USA women in the first round of the Volleyball Nations League, combining for 19 kills, two blocks, 10 digs and an ace in her two starts while hitting .358.

She wasn’t on the 14-player roster for the second round, but is back on the travel squad for the third round as the USA women (7-1) head to Calgary, Alberta, and play Belgium on Wednesday.

That roster has the third different look in as many rounds. This one includes seven players from the squad that won the gold medal last summer in the Tokyo Olympics, setters Jordyn Poulter and Micha Hancock, libero Justine Wong-Orantes, outside Kelsey Robinson, opposites Annie Drews and Jordan Thompson, and middle Haleigh Washington. This will mark Poulter’s 2022 VNL debut.

Also on the team are outsides Kathryn Plummer and Sarah Wilhite Parsons, libero Morgan Hentz, and middles Tori Dixon, Hannah Tapp and Dana Rettke.

Kara Bajema

Bajema, Rzeszow’s top scorer, was the MVP of the Polish Cup this spring when her club won it all for the first time.

“It was a good year,” the product of Lynden, Washington, said.

“She had a spectacular season culminating in a really deep run into the Champions League playoffs,” Kiraly said. “Her team, led by her, beat VakifBank (of Turkey), the best club team on the planet. To beat them anytime is a huge accomplishment and she led them throughout that match, especially in the fifth set. She had like five kills, including the match point.”

Interestingly, Bajema will move to VakifBank next season, in essence replacing USA teammate Michelle Bartsch-Hackley, who is taking a break from international volleyball.

“She’s proving herself out. We watch that stuff, whether somebody’s playing in Turkey or Poland or Italy or wherever, Japan and many other places. When you play really quality opponents like that and do well, that brings a lot of interest, so I’m very happy for her.

“She played for us last year in NORCECA right after the Olympics. Joe Trinsey was the head coach for that group because we weren’t even back when they started getting ready. But she was a different Kara then because she’d had like three months off and then they had two quick weeks of training. Now she’s coming off a full, really solid, exceptional club season.”

Bajema was a star outside in high school but transitioned to middle as a freshman at Washington. She went back outside as a sophomore and finally became a six-rotation player as a junior. That summer of 2019 she got to play for the U.S. College National Team and played in the World University Games, which happened to be coached by her college coach, Keegan Cook. As a senior, when Washington made it to the NCAA Tournament regional final, Bajema was a VolleyballMag.com first-team All-American. 

Travis Mewhirter wrote this feature on her for VBM heading into that 2019 NCAA Tournament.

She led Washington with 597 kills (4.63/set) and hit .280 to go along with a second-best 33 aces.

Kara Bajema hits against Canada/Volleyball World photo

That has continued, prompting Kiraly to note, “I love what she can do at the service line.”

She played in Italy in 2020-21 and was the third-leading scorer for Casalmaggiore. 

“I wouldn’t have changed that for the world,” Bajema said. “To be introduced to some of the best volleyball in the world is a great way to start. And it was like, OK, this is where I am and this is the standard and this is where I need to get to.

“My choice to go to Poland was that I needed to develop myself a little bit and I needed to take a step back and I think that’s exactly what happened. I had a great coach (Stephane Antiga) who coached me and a good team alongside of me. I think I was able to grow myself and grow my game.

“We had some good chances in Champions League. I wanted to have a good go in that and we did really well. That was awesome.”

Bajema said one of her focuses for improvement was passing.

“Hitting has always been my strong suit but I wanted to get a little better in every skill set or become a little more confident and take it to the next level,” Bajema said. “Every year, in college and post-college, I see myself growing a little bit and I think that’s cool. It’s kind of like a victory. You want a little more each year.”

Playing for Rzeszow, which is about 200 miles south of Warsaw, made for tough travel, “and that was probably the hardest part,” Bajema said. 

“It was good and different. Italian volleyball is Italian volleyball so there was definitely a bit of a change. 

“I had a good team around me.”

Throughout last season it was hard not to pay attention to what was happening in Ukraine, Poland’s western neighbor.

“We were only like 40 minutes away (from Ukraine). We were one of the closest cities to the border,” Bajema said. “They brought a lot of American troops into our city and lots of people from our city helped out. Our city was the place where people came to help and so we had a lot of foreigners.

“I was never scared, but there was a time when I had to be really realistic if I was going to be in danger. We stayed up with the news. You just kind of have to go on day to day and I never felt unsafe but I wasn’t going to be naive to what was happening.”

It’s made for quite a year for the 24-year-old, culminating with being on the USA roster.

“It’s weird because this has always been like a dream of mine that I never knew if it would happen,” Bajema said. “You think about these things, but you also know how hard it is to get there and I think for me, I always look at the best and I don’t want to stop until I get there.

“I love the grind, I love getting better and this is so much fun and so rewarding. Sometimes I have to take a step back and think, whoa, you’re actually playing for the USA team, you’re playing for one of the best coaches in the world. It’s a really cool opportunity and I think they’ve done a great job with this program.” 

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Kara Bajema hits against Japan/Volleyball World photo

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