First place is on the line in Pool B on Friday when the USA women play Serbia in the Volleyball Nations League Final 6 in Nanjing, China. The 3 a.m. Eastern first serve pits the USA, coming off its five-set comeback victory over Turkey, against Serbia, which lost to Turkey in five on Thursday.

An in-depth, pre-trip interview with USA coach Karch Kiraly follows.

The Americans went 13-2 in the first five groupings of three matches in three days each, competed around some brutal travel, losing only to Turkey in the second match of the series on May 16 (also in five) in Lincoln, Nebraska, and to Serbia in four on June 12 in Argentina.

If the USA wins, it plays at 7:45 a.m. Eastern on Saturday. If it loses, there will be a three-way tie that would have to be sorted out. Both medal matches are Sunday.

In Pool A, China beat the Netherlands in four on Wednesday and then Brazil swept the Netherlands, so China and Brazil play for 1-2 at 8:30 a.m. Eastern on Friday.

Before leaving for China, visited with Kiraly.

“In general, we’ve put together a strong tournament so far. Started a little slowly, really got challenged by Turkey in that second match in Lincoln. That was really good for us to have some things exposed in that match, we made some changes and emphasized a few different things in our offense.

“Our offense has generally found quite a bit of success, and then had another rough match near the end against Serbia after a long trip from China to Argentina. That, too, came at the right time. It was a good wake-up call for us that things are not always going to be smooth and easy, and in general our team did a really nice job of handling a very challenging five weeks of preliminaries in Nations League.

“I think we’re definitely learning more from our losses than our wins, especially the Turkey loss. We had some ball-control challenges, we weren’t receiving serve as well as we need to, and would like to in order to run our offense at the level that we aspire to run it at. We’re excited about the chance to play two teams that had a lot of success against us in our only losses in preliminaries in Nations League. It’s randomly worked out to give us a chance to try again, and versus Turkey and Serbia, it should be fun.

Foluke Akinradewo-USA volleyball-USA WNT-VNL-Volleyball Nations League
Foluke Akinradewo hits the back quick in preparation for the final round of VNL/Ed Chan,

“I think we’ve been receiving serve at a high level as the tournament’s gone on, so the focus for today was dialing in some things offensively at a little higher level than we were able to do on the trip, we’re also going to work on some defensive things tomorrow and Thursday before we head to the airport on Friday. Just dialing a number of offensive things in in terms of making sure that every hitter is running a route and is available to be set when we have a reasonably good pass.”

Kiraly made a big change when he switched reserve outside hitter Kelsey Robinson to libero.

“We had some serve-receive challenges in those first two matches, and we needed to stabilize our reception some. Kelsey’s historically been one of the most efficient passers for us over the last few years, so we asked her if she would be open to a role for this tournament that she hasn’t done a lot of, and that’s play at the ‘bro spot rather than the outside hitter spot in an effort to make us better. To present a new opportunity for her to help her team. She’s done a really nice job at it. She’s embraced the role, and continues to get better and better at it. We’re thankful that she took on a role like that, because it’s had a real positive impact on our ability to execute offensively.

“Certainly we take a lot of pride in our first contact, we aspire to be a really tough serving team, we aspire to be a team that receives tough serves well, and if we make a good first contact then a lot of good stuff falls into place. We also play hard, and play together, play for each other. That’s something that we aspire to a lot, in t he ways we communicate, verbally, and using body language, and we’re constantly trying to find more and more ways to make each other better. It’s a group that is diligent about that, and that makes an impact on what the team can do. We want to add up to more than the sum of our parts.

“The culture is one about learning, it’s one about development, and it’s about celebrating the successes of other people, of teammates, of other people in the program, and they’ve been doing a nice job with that. I think they’ve been very dialed in these last five weeks.

“It’s a little strange, because you play five weeks, you play hard, and then we come home, and it almost doesn’t feel like there’s a tournament going on right now, then we’ll leave in a couple of days. We’re still in the middle of a tournament, but we have couple of days at home to do it. That’s really good, because so many of our players spend so much of their year, so much of their 365 days each year outside their own country.

“Getting home to their own bed, even for four or five days, is a big deal. Most other countries, their players play professionally inside their own country, but we don’t have a professional league, so our players are always playing outside their own country. It’s really nice for them to get home for a few days, and reconnect with everybody before we hit the road again on Friday.”

We asked how he would grade the team so far.

“I think I’ll be able to give this team a much better report card after this tournament and World Championships. Even though we’re at the half way point in this quad, we really haven’t had the group together, healthy, and playing together until these last fifteen matches. I don’t know if I can give you enough of a grade until we’ve actually completed a tournament.

“This tournament is a good test. All the top teams are in, the top 16 teams in the world, it’s a long tournament, and it’s one where you play each of the other 15 teams, so it’s a clean round-robin. The round-robin, the preliminary part is done, and we’ll see how things go in the finals, where the best teams have earned the right to continue playing, but I don’t know if I can really give you a grade because even though we’re almost two years in, this is really the first year where the whole group has played together and played healthy.

I don’t know if it’s really a surprise, but some people have had a particularly strong tournament, Kelsey, in this new position, has been doing a very nice job, I’m excited for (setter) Carli (Lloyd), she’s been running us at a very high level, this is the first tournament where she’s been the main setter, the starting setter, and working with all the top players.

“Lauren Gibbemeyer is having a really strong tournament as one of our middles, Michelle Bartsch is doing really well as one of our outsides, those are some people who I would say aren’t a big surprise, but they’ve played very productively and efficiently so far this tournament.”

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