VNL 2024 schedule announced; USA women have Texas stop, men play in Canada
December 8, 2023
October 24, 2023
Although Morgan Hentz hasn’t ripped a kill, made a block, nor even served a single ball, she just might be the Most Valuable Player through the first three weeks of Athletes Unlimited’s volleyball season.
Hentz unquestionably has been the biggest winner, undefeated in her nine matches, victorious in 24 out of 27 sets.
After going 3-0 in the opening week as a member of captain Leah Edmond’s squad, the 5-foot-9 libero is 6-0 as the captain of her own teams during Weeks 2 and 3 of competition at Legacy Park in Mesa, Arizona.
Hentz not only has been the inspirational floor leader for her squads, she has proved to be an impeccable judge of talent in AU’s weekly drafts. Standing at No. 2 on the leaderboard, due in no small part to the league-best 1,500 “win points” accrued by her teams, the former Stanford All-American will get a third opportunity to demonstrate her captain’s acumen this week.
The other captains picking in Week 4’s draft on Tuesday will be Leah Edmond, Alli Linnehan and Sydney Hilley.
The exclamation point to Team Hentz’s dominating Week 3, during which it took eight of nine sets, came in the finale on Monday night when it walloped Team Edmond in a showdown between squads that had won their first two matches. Hentz’s bunch put Edmond’s shellshocked crew in the rear-view mirror by double digits after a near-flawless opening set, and another hitting-on-all-cylinders stanza made the margin 25 points at the end of two. The 75-47 aggregate victory (25-14, 25-11, 25-22) was wrapped up with the first point Team Hentz notched in the third set and marked the second-fewest points allowed in AU history.
With an epic performance on Monday night, middle hitter Molly McCage punctuated a massively productive week that saw her soar to No. 6 in the standings. The 6-foot-3 veteran hit .823 (that’s not a typo) with a career-high 14 kills on 17 errorless swings, and chipped in two solo blocks, a couple of block assists and four digs for good measure. McCage, 29, was voted the match’s first MVP, which came on the heels of another MVP1 on Sunday and an MVP3 on Friday.
Outside hitter Linnehan was the second MVP on Monday after cracking 14 kills on 33 swings with zero errors. She also was MVP 2 on Sunday. Linnehan’s 500 “win points” (60 for each aggregate victory and 40 for claiming eight of nine sets), 437 “stat points” and 80 “MVP points” moved her No. 3 in the standings and a captain’s spot for the second time in four weeks.
“There’s so much trust on this court,” McCage said on Sunday after Team Hentz dropped a nip-and-tuck first set, but stepped up in the last two to top Team Rosenthal (75-60 aggregate, 23-25, 25-15, 25-20). “Whenever a mistake happens, it just rolls off because we have confidence in each other.”
McCage lavished credit on captain Hentz, who had 32 digs and nine assists over three matches, which only scratched the surface of her overall contributions.
“One, Morgan is an amazing athlete,” Molly said. “You’ve seen her dig, you’ve seen her play. Two, she overcommunicates on everybody’s job. Everybody’s position, she’s prepared for it. She prepares so well. She’s a student of the game. Her leadership exudes on the court and she’s wonderful to play with.”
Added setter Taylor Bruns Tegenrot, who was used situationally as a blocking sub for the smaller Nootsara Tomkom: “Morgan leads so well. She has such a calm confidence and it’s contagious.”
McCage, Linnehan and middle hitter Ali Bastianelli consistently feasted on the offerings from slick veteran Tomkom. The middles were particularly effective — McCabe hit .588 in three matches, Bastianelli .400 — and that set the table for the pins.
In a sweep (75-55 overall, 25-19, 25-21, 25-15) on Friday by Team Hentz over Team Hilley, Bastianelli hit .500 (6-for-12 with no errors), and was credited with six blocks and three digs. The former Illinois star provided insight on why she and Tomkom clicked so effectively.
“This is our seventh week together between our last two seasons in AU, so it seems our connection is only getting stronger,” Bastianelli said.
Until it ran into a buzzsaw in Team Hentz on Monday, Team Edmond had a fun week. Edmond regained the No. 1 spot on the leaderboard by adding 877 points, including 537 individual stat points. She was MVP1 of her team’s 72-60 victory (22-25, 25-15, 25-20) over Team Hilley on Sunday, compiling 18 kills on .454 hitting with 10 digs.
Veteran middle Tori Dixon loomed large at the net for Team Edmond during a highly competitive victory (71-68 aggregate, 25-22, 21-25, 25-21) over Team Hilley on Friday. Dixon was accorded MVP1 honors after posting a career-high five blocks, three coming at key moments of the decisive third set.
“Our team is well-rounded at every position,” setter Natalia Valentin-Anderson said on Sunday after quarterbacking the “W” for Edmond’s crew and digging 15 balls. “The girls came ready to play and were aggressive. It makes it easy for the setter when all your hitters are in time, they all want the ball, and they’re all confident and aggressive.”
In the opener on Monday, Team Hilley went to 1-2 on the week with a 72-59 victory (25-20, 22-25, 25-14) over Team Rosenthal, which fell to 0-3. In her first significant playing time since Week 1, rookie middle hitter Karis Watson was a difference-maker for Hilley’s squad with eight kills on .428 efficiency, two blocks and a block assist.
“We’ve been Jonesin’ for a win, and we’ve had a lot of controversy this week, so it felt really good to finally come together and gel. We had great energy on the court,” said Watson, a former Clemson standout.
Getting the call when Danielle Hart (concussion symptoms) was unavailable, Watson wound up being voted MVP2.
“Everybody on the bench here is a star player, so it’s just a matter of contributing how I can when I can when my time comes,” she said. “I try to prepare the same way every time regardless.”
Looking ahead to the draft on Tuesday, superstar outside hitter Bethania De La Cruz is eligible to be selected. She was gone for Week 3 after being recalled by the Dominican Republic’s national team for the Pan American Games and will not be available for the upcoming match on Friday.