As are all the teams in the Volleyball Nations League, the USA is dealing with a shortened quad, veterans on the mend or needing rest, and plenty of new players on the first-round roster.
With the women’s first round in the books, the men’s VNL begins Tuesday with four matches, two in Brasilia, Brazil, where the USA takes on Slovenia and China plays Iran. In Ottawa, Canada, Bulgaria plays Serbia and Canada plays Germany.
The USA men, who won their opening-round Olympics match last summer over France, subsequently failed to get into the knockout stage, while France stunned the field and went on to win the gold medal. A handful of players from the USA team who will be back are not in Brasilia, so coach John Speraw knows he’ll have his hands full from the get-go.
After playing Slovenia, the Americans have Wednesday off, but then play the Netherlands on Thursday, Japan on Friday and Brazil on Saturday. Then it’s back to Anaheim before heading to the second leg in Sofia, Bulgaria.
“When you look at it, our depth chart gets into collegiate volleyball players pretty quick,” Speraw said with a laugh. “So we put this roster together without having direct knowledge of working with some of these athletes in person before. So it’s strictly off the observations of their collegiate experiences and there’s a fair number of potential options, particularly at outside hitter.”
The roster has 25 players, 10 playing in the VNL for the first time and six who will return to college. For each round, Speraw can take 14 players.
The good news for Speraw is he’s also the head coach at UCLA, so he’s seen a lot of the young players, including three on this round’s list of 14, Long Beach State libero Mason Briggs, Lewis middle Tyler Mitchem and Ohio State outside hitter Jacob Pasteur. Not in Brazil but youngsters part of the 25 include Stanford’s Will Rottman, Penn State’s Brett Wildman, Ball State’s Quinn Isaacson, UCLA’s Merrick McHenry and Long Beach State’s Spencer Olivier.
“We have veterans who are going to take some time who are not going to play early or at all in VNL. In years past I’ve been pretty generous with time off for the guys who have been playing for a long time, but obviously this one is a little different for two reasons,” Speraw said. “One is it’s not really a quad, a three-year period, and second, the new Olympic qualification process means these VNL matches are potentially more impactful. There’s some flexibility with return dates for veterans. TJ DeFalco, Micah Christenson, Garrett Muagututia, Mitch Stahl and Eric Shoji are not here.”
Also gone is Olympic outside Taylor Sander, who is trying his hand on the beach as Taylor Crabb’s partner, and his brother, Brendan, an Olympic alternate outside, has retired. Brendan last weekend married Paige Tapp, a USA women’s national teamer.
So the focus from the start will likely be on veteran outside hitters Aaron Russell, the product of Penn State, and Loyola’s Thomas Jaeschke. Both were Olympic alternates last year.
“This week we probably have to rely on them a lot,” Speraw said.
Also in the outside hitter mix are Cody Kessell and Pasteur.
“Aaron Russell and Thomas Jaeschke are really the only veterans we have at outside hitter,” Speraw said. “And they were late arrivals, so we really had less than a week of training with them. So at this point we’re not as sharp as we will be in a few weeks and we’re integrating some young guys. So it’s going to be an opportunity to take a look.”
In the middle, veteran Olympian David Smith, the product of UC Irvine, is back, “and that’s nice,” Speraw said, “after winning Champions League (with his Polish team Zaska) and having a great season. And we’re really impressed with some of the young middles.” Also back at middle is Olympic alternate Jeff Jendryk, the Loyola product.
That will include recent Hawai’i standout Patrick Gasman and Mitchem.
“Both of those guys look great,” Speraw said. “I feel really optimistic about the middle and the impact those young guys will have. They give us some size.”
With Shoji back in Hawai’i for some rest, the liberos are Briggs and Stanford product Kyle Dagostino.
The setters are former Stanford star James Shaw, and Long Beach great Josh Tuaniga. The opposites are Long Beach State Olympian Kyle Ensing and Ohio State’s Jake Hanes. Christenson won’t join the USA until the third round in Osaka, Japan, on July 5. The only Olympian taking the VNL off completely is senior statesmen Matt Anderson.
“So overall it’s a pretty young squad,” Speraw said.
“There are a number of challenges for these young guys. One is they’re coming from a lot of difference systems, so we’re explaining how we play the game and how we connect offensively and what the expectation is,” Speraw said.
“The national team guys have some of the same issues, because they’re going overseas and playing for eight months in all different types of systems. But at least they’ve done it before so the amount of time for integration is smaller than some of these young guys coming in and who are hearing some things for the first time.”
The travel for the USA is pretty tough with no matches anywhere near the Pacific time zone.
But the good news: “Health, unlike the previous few years, is not a factor,” said Speraw, who has dealt with so many injuries the past few years. “That’s been great.”