Lots of new faces, lots of energy and lots of optimism.
The USA women are in the first year of a quadrennial, not quite a year removed from winning the Olympic bronze medal in Rio last August and more than three years away from Tokyo 2020.
Karch Kiraly is in his second quad as the head coach with a roster full of women well known to NCAA volleyball fans, but mostly a group of players with relatively limited international experience.
Currently in the gym in Anaheim are returning Olympians Carli Lloyd, Kelsey Robinson and Kelly Murphy. They are three of the seven we know who will likely be back from last year’s 12-woman roster. Kiraly, 56, the former great indoors and beach player who started as an assistant to Hugh McCutcheon for the 2012 Games, obviously has learned from the past two Olympics.
“I did get the benefit of going through a whole quad as an assistant to Hugh. That was a big help and a big learning experience without which I would have been completely unprepared for stepping up one seat into the head-coaching job,” Kiraly said after a spirited practice Thursday at the American Sports Center where both the USA women’s and men’s teams train.
“That was huge. I would not have been very effective or good for the program without that.
“But going forward through these past four years, what have I learned? What have I not learned?
“I’ve learned a ton about managing people. How to keep a group of 40-plus people all moving in a direction toward some special things that we want to accomplish.”
A big challenge, he said, was hiring and finalizing his new staff. They include assistant coaches Tama Miyashiro, Erin Virtue and Jon Newman-Gonchar, technical coordinator Jeff Liu and athletic trainer Kara Kessans.
“Essentially the whole staff has turned over and that took longer than I would have liked it to,” Kiraly said. “It was a good and really challenging process to go through … I’m OK with hiring a brand new staff. I would not want to do it every year. That was a lot of work.”
A similarity to four years ago, he said, is all the new faces in the gym. For that matter, it looked like a Big Ten reunion, with players like Amber Rolfzen, Justine Wong-Orantes and the aforementioned Robinson from Nebraska; Tori Dixon, Sarah Wilhite, Hannah Tapp, Paige Tapp and Lauren Gibbemeyer from Minnesota; Micha Hancock, Aiyana Whitney, and Megan Courtney from Penn State; Liz McMahon and Michelle Bartsch from Illinois; Annie Drews from Purdue; Lexi Dannemiller from Michigan and Lauren Carlini from Wisconsin.
“We’ve got to be really good at teaching and facilitating learning,” Kiraly said. “I think we’re better than we were four years ago. We’ve upgraded a number of things in terms of how quickly we can ramp people up into our systems and learning about how we play the game and learning about why we do what we do.”
While most international competitions allow for 14 players on the roster, at the Olympics there are only 12. Kiraly figures that just seven will or might return to the program.
“I can’t predict that for sure, but we know that (setter) Alisha Glass is retired. She’s getting married and starting a family.
“We know that Courtney Thompson is retired, one of the three setters we took to Rio.
“We know our libero, Kayla Banwarth, is retired and now doing a great job coaching at Nebraska.
“We know that (right side) Karsta Lowe is retired and she’s starting architecture school in August at USC.
“We know that Christa (Harmotto) Dietzen, our captain, is retired.”
Accordingly, two middles Foluke (Akinradewo) and Rachael Adams, one setter in Lloyd, outsides Larson, Hill and Robinson and one opposite, Murphy, may return.
“Jordan and Foluke have been with this program a long time and I had no idea what they wanted to do. They are insisting that we keep the door wide open for the possibility of playing for another four years. That doesn’t mean they’re gonna be able to play four years, Maybe somebody will hit the wall a year from now and say, ‘I tried, I’m done, I can’t do it anymore.’
“There will be injuries. We don’t want to have any of those, knock on wood, but just the fact that they’re staying they’d like to keep the door wide open to that possibility is heartening because they’re really special people. Foluke played her first USA senior team trip in 2005, 12 years ago, and Jordan started in 2009. To have those people say, ‘I’m really interested in the possibility of going more and I valued the experience that I had in the last four years,’ I’m really excited about that.
“Of course, they’ll have to keep earning it and keep playing at the level they’re at now. And that’s no guarantee as they already have lots of miles on the odometer. But it’s great to have really quality people who are elite performers in their particular position and have been world-class players and world-class performers for many, many years.”
However, they will not be on the still-to-be-named roster for the June 17-25 Pan American Cup in Lima, Peru. The team will play in the FIVB World Grand Prix July 7 through August 6 and then play in the FIVB World Grand Champions Cup in September.
There is also a chance to watch them domestically when they play August 27 and 29 against Brazil in the Anaheim Convention Center.
Sometime people need to be reminded of how long-term this is,” Kiraly said. “People will find out if they’re on a roster or if they’re traveling or if they’re not on a roster or if they’re not traveling. At first it seems like it’s the end of the world — ‘I didn’t make it’ — and they’ve been all-world and all-stars and starters and All-Americans their whole careers and now it gets a little tougher.
“And they have to be reminded that no means not yet. It doesn’t mean no, you’re never going to be good enough, it means no you haven’t earned that right yet, but we’re here to do everything we can to help you try to earn it the next time.”
A big question is who will join Lloyd at setter. The group includes Carlini, Hancock, Dannemiller and former Stanford star Madi Bugg.
“They’re all doing a really nice job,” Kiraly said. “It’s a great group of five. We had a great group of five four years ago with Alisha Glass, Courtney Thompson, Jenna Hagglund, Carli — who was not active at all in 2013 because of some injuries — and Molly Kreklow came into the picture in 2014.
“And we now have a great group of five and they’re incredibly mindful and they’re focused on getting better and that’s not that much different from the group four years ago.”
It all adds up to what should be an interesting and fun quad.
“It’s an exciting year,” Kiraly said. “This is a year for our program — for every program, not just our program — to give some veterans a chance to recharge, physically and mentally, people like Foluke and Jordan and Kim Hill and Kelsey and Rachel and lots of others. You know, four years ago Jordan Larsen took some time off, didn’t go to Grand Prix, didn’t go to Pan Am Cup, and those were wonderful opportunities for Kim Hill to be thrown into the deep end and learn and develop.
“A year and a few months later she’s having an MVP performance in leading us to a world-championship title. So that was actually a huge benefit to us to have some people like Jordan resting at that time. We’ll have people like that resting again this year and certainly there will be some struggles along the way, because they haven’t played lots of big USA matches, haven’t played in the Olympics or the world championships or the World Cup. And that’s OK. This is a great year to work through some of the ups and downs of that.”
Kiraly pointed out the struggles the USA men had last week in Serbia, losing to Serbia, Canada and Belgium in the FIVB World League.
“They’re very young. We’re probably going to take some lumps of our own in the Grand Prix because we’re so young, and that’s OK, because we’re in it for the long haul. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
“We like the path that we’re on. We’re excited that some people will get chances to show what they can do this year.”