Thayer Hall’s performance for gold-medal-winning USA “beyond our wildest expectations”

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Thayer Hall holds her tournament MVP trophy flanked by USA Volleyball's Tom Pingel, left, and Cristobal Marte-Hoffiz, president of NORCECA/FIVB photo

Thayer Hall didn’t tell her teachers why she needed off last week, just that she was going to Costa Rica.

By the time the University of Florida commit got back to Dorman High School in Roebuck, South Carolina, they knew.

Not only had her USA women’s junior national team won the Women’s U20 Pan American Cup, but Hall — the youngest player on the squad — was the MVP of the international tournament.

“She was great,” said team leader Tom Pingel of USA Volleyball. “I mean, the poise, the consistency that she showed at her age against that level of competition was beyond our wildest expectations.”

Thayer Hall attacks against Cuba in Costa Rica/FIVB photo

Hall, a 6-foot-3 outside hitter, who will be a senior at Dorman next season, had six kills and a block in the USA’s 27-25, 25-22, 25-22 win over Argentina in the gold-medal match.

“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” Hall said. “I have never been so grateful to have had an opportunity like that.”

Hall, a member of the 2017 VolleyballMag.com top 25 Underclassmen to Watch list, played with the USA team last summer, but it was in Florida.

“Last summer was so fun with the international experience, but to be out of the country this time and to get to play at the highest level and get a chance to prove myself, and play with the best of the best in this country, it was so much fun. I would not trade that experience for the world.”

Hall was one of four players who were in high school this past fall. One, 6-4 middle Brionne Butler, was an early enrollee at Texas and practiced and played with the Longhorns this spring. Two others will be freshmen in the fall, setter Madison Lilley at Kentucky and outside hitter Mackenzie May at UCLA.

“It was fantastic,” said Jerritt Elliott of Texas, the head coach of the USA team. “The kids were great. We got a pretty good rhythm going pretty fast. It’s a tribute to what the kids put into it.”

And they did it in a hurry. The team met for the first time in Houston, flew to Costa Rica, and practiced just twice.

“We were fortunate to be in a three-team pool and had a bye first day,” Pingel said. “We got to see Argentina play the Dominican Republic and could scout them. Then we played Argentina and they hadn’t seen us.”

The USA opened with a 25-23, 25-19, 15-25, 25-21 victory over Argentina as Hall had 10 kills on 29 attacks, a block and an ace.

“And to think she’s like five days away from being eligible for the youth national team,” Pingel said. “She’s a late-December birthday and she missed the cutoff to play youth by less than a week.

“Yeah, she was on the team last year and saw some playing time, but the improvements in her overall game and especially her back-row skills were really impressive.”

Pingel said Hall is not a superior leaper, but “a good strong athlete that has a good head on her shoulders and she’s well grounded and is a hard worker.”

It continued to show as Hall had 12 kills and two blocks as the Americans beat the Dominican Republic 25-22, 21-25, 25-22, 25-21.

In the quarterfinals the Americans swept Uruguay 25-10, 25-19, 25-17. Hall had seven kills and no errors in 13 swings while playing the first two sets.

And then in the semifinals, she led the team with 17 kills and had three blocks in a  25-17, 25-23, 30-32, 25-20 victory over Cuba.

After the final, she was taken aback when her name was called for being the tourney’s top player.

“I was definitely not expecting it at all,” Hall said. “My first name is Elizabeth and I go by Thayer, which is my middle name (a family name on her mother’s side), so when they announced ‘Number 3 of the United States, Elizabeth Hall,’ I didn’t even respond to it.

“I looked around and no one was up there. And I was like, ‘Oh, wait, that’s me!’

“But obviously anybody on our team deserves that award. We worked so well together, there were no issues chemistry-wise, and it was just an honor and I’m thankful to represent the USA, South Carolina, Dorman, everywhere, on such a high platform.”

Hall said she was teased about being the youngest player, but was always included as a peer on a star-studded roster that included Khalia Lanier of USC and Elle Sandbothe of Kansas State.

“There were jokes about me being the baby, but it was fun and games,” Hall said. “We are all like a family unit from the beginning.”

Hall plays for the Upward Stars club. Earlier this season, she played libero, something that wasn’t lost on Pingel.

“It was a remarkably smart move, because it gave her a ton of reps in an area in which she needed to improve,” Pingel said. “Back-court skills. Serve-receive defense. And it reduced the wear and tear on her body from jumps and swings.”

And Hall loved playing the position.

“It was really funny, because I’m the tallest girl on my team,” she said. “It definitely helped because I improved so much on my defense and that will definitely be a deciding factor on whether I get to play in college because obviously outsides have to play defense. I’m so excited now to have that under my belt and I’ll keep working on it. But I loved it, honestly.

“It was a break for my knees, my shoulder. I’m still healthy, but it was really fun.”

The fun continued for Hall once she got home. First there was the reaction at Dorman High.

“Everybody knew because it was all over Twitter and Instagram,” Hall said. “I had to clear leaving with my principal and tell my teachers. I told them I was going to Costa Rica, but I didn’t tell them why. Most of my teachers thought I was on a mission trip.”

She was on a mission, all right, but then Monday night Hall was playing beach volleyball, just for the fun of it.

It was the start of a busy week. On Thursday night at her high school, Hall will be presented as the MaxPreps female athlete of the year and on Wednesday that group had a video crew following Thayer and her family around and doing interviews.

Her Upward Stars 18s team will play in the AAU nationals in Orlando and then Hall will head to a training camp with the USA team to prepare for the FIVB U20 World Championships in Mexico July 12-24.

Thayer Hall and coach Paula Kirkland after Dorman won the 2016 South Carolina state title

She’ll get a brief break and then there’s a high school season ahead, which just doesn’t seem fair for Dorman’s opponents. Dorman won the Class AAAAA state title last year, losing just one set in four state-tournament matches. it was Dorman’s first title since 2009 and Hall was the MVP.

Obviously she’s a player to watch, later this summer, next high school season, the summer of 2018, at the University of Florida and beyond. But what Hall did last week was something else.

“Especially because she was unable to attend those national-team tryouts where the other 11 athletes had come out of,” Pingel said. “She came to a high-performance tryout in Nashville. I was there and it was a bit of a roll of the dice.

“She certainly made it pay off, no doubt about it.”

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