There’s no telling how it will all shake out in the long term for Morgan Hentz with the USA national team, but so far, pretty darn good, especially in Volleyball Nations League.
“It’s been a long time coming for her and super thrilled for her with all the hard work she’s put in and all the patience she’s had to have,” USA coach Karch Kiraly said.
That’s for sure.
Hentz, a 5-foot-9 libero, was the defensive focal point for Stanford when it won three NCAA championships in four years, in 2016, 2018 and 2019.
Her exploits often left you with your mouth open watching in wonder. When people use the cliche “quick as a cat,” they might be giving the cat too much credit when it comes to Hentz. When Stanford played, she was all over the place all the time.
“Morgan brought that every play every day. I don’t ever remember her taking a play off, intellectually, emotionally or physically,” said John Dunning, the former Stanford head coach who recruited her and coached the Cardinal to that 2016 national title before retiring.
“She might be hurting but you’re not going to know. She was intense in every aspect. She’s a description of what we want people to be. It’s attitude, it’s will, she has huge range because she’s strong, etc., etc., but it’s her will. She is not going to let that ball drop. Period. If we could teach that to everyone. The only way is to maybe to say watch her. And then copy her.”
Early in her college career, Hentz, who is from Lakeside Park, Kentucky, wasn’t sure she wanted to play pro volleyball. In the spring after her senior year, she went into the USA gym in Anaheim, but that was short lived.
“I think she arrived just four days before (the COVID) lockdown,” Kiraly said. “And that was March of 2020, after she and her teammates won yet another NCAA title in December of 2019. We were excited to have her in the gym and everything shut down and she had some injuries last year didn’t get to do much with us.”
So it was pretty cool when we talked a couple of weeks ago in Bossier City, Louisiana, during the first round of Volleyball Nations League. Not only was one former Stanford teammate on the roster, setter Jenna Gray, another joined them that week when all the 2021 Olympians and alternates came to Louisiana for a team banquet and to watch the squad play Canada. Hence this photo we took of Hentz, Gray, and Kathryn Plummer.
After Louisiana, a different playing roster of 14 went to Brasilia, Brazil, and that included Plummer and Hentz. So far, the USA is 7-1 and Hentz has played in half the matches. She played in three of the four matches in Shreveport and then in the Philippines, when Olympian Justine Wong-Orantes joined the squad, played in one of the four matches.
The team heads next to Calgary, Alberta, where it plays four more matches, against Belgium on June 30 and then Serbia, Turkey and Germany.
Speaking of which, after leaving Stanford, Hentz went to Germany in 2020-21 and played for Dresdner SC with Gray and another former Stanford teammate, Madeleine Gates.
But last summer, she hurt her knee and needed surgery for a torn meniscus.
“It was one where I couldn’t not have the surgery and I was rehabbing in the fall and had the wonderful opportunity to play for Athletes Unlimited,” Hentz said. “I feel like that really re-ignited my love for the sport a lot.”
Indeed, the timing was perfect. Instead of a long season in Europe, Hentz went to Dallas for Athletes Unlimited and its five-week gathering and set the AU standard for digs (See a highlight reel below).
“That was such an amazing league where you got to play with so many incredible women,” Hentz said. “There are 44 there and it was so fun. I don’t know, it fueled my fire and made me want to keep going.”
Playing with so many veterans in such a unique new-team-each-week format was a good experience, said Hentz, who at Stanford was a three-time first-team VolleyballMag.com All-American.
“I learned so much on the mental and emotional side of the game,” Hentz said. “You have to know your strengths, know your weaknesses, and be able to say them to your teammates because you have to get to know each other so quickly. A new team is formed each week and the teams that can do that are most successful. Who can jell the best.”
In VNL, the team is 25 deep, but only 14 make each trip. Three three liberos are Hentz, Wong-Orantes and Kendall White, who played one match in Louisiana but didn’t go to Brazil.
It’s likely the third-round roster will include Wong-Orantes — who was so spectacular last summer when the USA won the Olympic gold medal — and Hentz again, but you never know. Either way, Hentz, who turns 24 next month, is having a blast.
“I just feel really grateful to have been welcomed with such open arms by a lot of the older girls and veterans in this program and they’ve done that with all the newbies,” Hentz said. “I can’t say anything except it’s a huge honor and I’m just happy to be here right now.”
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