Tawa’s great memories: Re-visiting the USA Olympians when they played in club and HS

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The USA women, shown here after beating China in pool play, can still act like the kids they were/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

The players on the 2021 USA women’s Olympic volleyball team all had distinguished high school/club careers. I am fortunate to have covered all of them in some way. Here’s a more personal look at the 12 who will play the Dominican Republic in the Tokyo Olympics quarterfinals Wednesday:

Californian Justine Wong-Orantes is the only player on the indoor team who was not a Top 100 Senior Ace, as determined by PrepVolleyball.com, in the summer before her senior high school season. Wong-Orantes wasn’t even listed among the Top 250; instead she was named one who “Just Missed” the list.

Despite the lack of national accolades, Wong-Orantes made quite the impression on me during her high school career. Standing just 5-foot-6, she started all four years at setter for national powerhouse Los Alamitos. Wong-Orantes led the Griffins to a CIF-Southern Section title in 2011. More impressively, she guided Mizuno Long Beach 16 Rockstar to the 16 Open national title just five months earlier.

Long Beach, you see, had no chance to win Junior Nationals in 2011. When the club year began, the team was certainly a contender. By the time it got to the national championships in Atlanta, however, the team was a shadow of itself, playing without its two ultra-athletic and talented middles. One was injured and the other quit the team one month before.

Wong-Orantes, who was part of a setting tandem in a 6-2 offense in January, ran a 5-1 at Junior Nationals. Behind her determination and grit, Long Beach overcame powerful Northern Lights (Sarah Wilhite; Samantha Seliger-Swenson) in a thriller to win it all!

JWO was one of those players everyone enjoyed watching because of her hustle and intensity, but many wondered where she’d fit in after high school, as she wasn’t considered a great technical setter and was a better beach player during a time when the NCAA had not yet sanctioned beach. She went to Nebraska to play indoors and hoped to earn a spot in the back row for the Huskers. Wong-Orantes always believed in herself, believed she could make an impact in Lincoln. She eventually owned the libero position, both for Nebraska and now for the USA.

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Two members of the Olympic team once could not make their respective club’s first teams in their age divisions. Middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu played on TAV’s second team as a 15-year-old and helped it qualify in Open. Opposite Jordan Thompson needed a season at Northern Lights before earning a spot on its top team. To be fair, both TAV and Lights had ridiculous talent in those classes.

Ogbogu could fly! Her slide attack was a thing of beauty and her lateral agility made her block imposing despite a lack of ideal size in the middle. Ogbogu originally committed to Cal but changed her mind and made Texas her home and became the Longhorns’ career blocks leader. Here’s what we wrote about her in 2012’s Senior Aces list:

6. Chiaka Ogbogu, 6-1 MB, Coppell (Texas), TAV – Texas
Ogbogu is a smooth, incredibly gifted athlete with the ability to single-handedly change the outcome of a game.  Her athletic ability is unmatched on the court. She touches almost 10-8 and uses that vertical to her advantage both offensively and defensively.  She gets off the floor easily, has hang time for days and is good attacking off of one foot or two, with improving range. While she has no trouble blasting over or through the majority of blocks, “Chia” possesses the court sense to know when a touch shot would be the better play.  As a blocker, she is tenacious and competitive – she has extreme lateral mobility and great block timing and can take a seasoned hitter completely out of her game.  Only in her fourth year of volleyball, Ogbogu just keeps getting better and better. The Texas Longhorns will get her best years. Scary thought.

Jordan Thompson as a club player

Thompson was such a graceful athlete! She was fast and could elevate and seemed to score on every swing, just as she does now! I remember telling Cincinnati head coach Molly Alvey that JT was going to be a superstar for the Bearcats from her first day on campus. Thompson became an unstoppable killing machine for Cincy. Here’s what we wrote about her in the 2015 Senior Aces. Note her ranking. College coaches seemed to have a bias if you weren’t going to a Power 5 Conference school…

Here’s what we had on Thompson:

44. Jordan Thompson, 6-4 RS, Southwest (Minneapolis, Minnesota), Northern Lights – Cincinnati
Long, tall and athletic, Thompson is a formidable presence on the right side. She has a lightning fast arm and a reach that creates incredible angles on the ball. Blessed with a lot of range offensively, Thompson is comfortable swinging from the pin as well as moving inside to keep blockers across the net on their toes. She is smooth off the floor and has all the shots in her offensive arsenal. Thompson also presents a big blocking presence at the net and has the ability to slow down an opponent’s best attacker. A mature player with a positive attitude and passion for the game, Thompson is a great team player who earned All-Tournament honors in helping Northern Lights win AAU Nationals in the 17 Open division last summer. Thompson has committed to Cincinnati and should contribute early for the Bearcats, whether she stays on the right or makes the transition to outside hitter.

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Setter Micha Hancock is another player whose Senior Ace ranking suffered because she wasn’t going to a big-time volleyball program. Oh, you didn’t know? Before she enrolled at Penn State, Hancock had signed to play at Tulsa, where her older sister was an outside hitter. She might have played four years for the Golden Hurricane had head coach Ed Allen not departed for Alabama. That allowed Hancock to re-open her recruitment. When Penn State had a freshman setter leave the program, it opened up a spot for her. I once asked her if she was nervous about being thrown into the pressure cooker at Penn State. Hancock answered quickly and definitively.

“I am not scared at all,” she proclaimed. “I am so excited to get in there and train with those girls. I just want to see how hard I can push myself. It’s going to be a challenge but I’m going to have fun doing it.”

My main memories of Hancock while playing club for Oklahoma Peak Performance revolve around that top-spin jump serve. What a devastating weapon! She didn’t err with it and it could not be returned. That led to long scoring runs for OP2 and a ton of Club-level wins! Here’s what we wrote in 2011 about Hancock for the Aces:

41. Micha Hancock, 5-10 S/RS, Memorial (Edmond OK), Oklahoma Peak Performance — Tulsa

A complete player, few, if any, are as skilled as Hancock. The left-hander understands the game well and can make all the sets. She has thunder in her left arm, which she uses from the right pin, in the back row or behind the service line, where she can deliver a top spin or jump float to any area of the court. She is a great passer with unmatched grit and tenacity and a flat out winner. When the game’s on the line, she’ll make the necessary play no matter where she is on the court. Few players can control a match like she does. Hancock, who won an Oklahoma 6A title a year ago and took home Gatorade Player of the Year honors, will stay in-state to set and hit right side for Tulsa. She is a sure-fire four year starter for the Golden Hurricanes.

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Opposite Annie Drews isn’t a player I saw much during her high school days, but I remember how excited Dave Shondell was to have her coming to West Lafayette to play for Purdue. Shondell loves to scour the Midwest for emerging talent and struck gold with Drews, who grew up in nearby Mishawaka. This was our 2012 Aces blurb about her:

29. Annie Drews, 6-4 RS, Penn (Mishawaka, Indiana), Circle City Gold — Purdue
A tall lefty who can hit with power and precision, Drews was a relative unknown when she committed to Purdue. By the time she “blew up” as a player at AAU Nationals last summer, showing off her imposing block and fast arm, she was already spoken for. A strong athlete, Drews possesses a positive attitude and competitive streak that will serve her well in the Big Ten. In a league that continues to recruit the biggest outside hitters in the land, a physical presence on the right side who can block and terminate will be a real plus for the Boilermakers. Drews is a late-bloomer who will develop well in the Purdue system.

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Middle Foluke Akinradewo is the only Olympian I never had the honor of watching. Akinradewo did not play on the club circuit, because the Floridian was a track standout and devoted to that sport during the spring. She did more than enough during the fall high school campaign, however, to attract national attention. In 2004, she was a PrepVolleyball National Player of the Year finalist after leading St. Thomas Aquinas to a state title in a season in which she terminated 516 times. Akinradewo was named Florida 5A POY and was thrice the Broward County Player of the Year. Akinradewo went on to star for Stanford. Here was her Senior Aces blurb back in 2004 (when we weren’t writing quite as much):

4. Foluke Akinradewo, 6-3 MB, St. Thomas Aquinas (Ft. Lauderdale FL), No club – Stanford
You never saw Akinradewo playing club ball, because she is a three-sport athlete, also excelling in basketball and on the track. The best leaper in the class, she touches an astounding 10-9 and elevates effortlessly, which contributes to her being a devastating attacker and strong blocker. Academically oriented, the Canadian-born Akinradewo is a fast learner. She’ll probably start and be good for Stanford as a freshman and be all-world by the time she’s done. 

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Outside hitter Kim Hill is a small-school girl from my current hometown of Portland. Nike Northwest Juniors’ Jim Hartner first told me about this kid when she was a gangly sophomore starring for Portland Christian in both volleyball and basketball. Hartner is prone to hyperbole, but when he said she’d develop into one of the nation’s best, he was right on about Hill. By the time she was a senior this future Pepperdine standout was No. 8 in the Senior Aces. This is what we wrote about her in the summer of 2007:

8. Kim Hill, 6-4 MB, Portland Christian (Portland, Oregon), Nike Northwest Juniors – Pepperdine
This kid is tough! Who else do you know who takes a ball off the face, bleeds all over the court and then leads her team back in a double final to win the 17s championship at the Volleyball Festival? Hill, Oregon 2A Player of the Year in volleyball AND basketball a year ago and two-time Festival champion with Nike Northwest Juniors, can do it all: pass, dig, hit and block. Better yet, she bleeds for her team! A middle who plays all the way around, Hill possesses the best ball control skills for a kid her size in this class. She is skinny but attacks with power from the front and back row, is a quiet but effective leader and has court savvy well beyond her tender years. Hill will make an immediate impact for the Pepperdine Waves and could be moved to the outside, which is a scary thought with her terminating and blocking skills. This kid will be a force at the collegiate level from the moment she steps on the court.

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My first thought about outside hitter Kelsey Robinson is that she was a twin. She and fellow OH Carly Sahagian both played for Sports Performance and both started their collegiate careers at Tennessee. Playing for SPVB 18 Elite her senior year, everyone on that team was bereft of a high school state title or club national championship, which was a first for that club. Robinson and company got the monkey off their collective backs by besting Munciana for the AAU title in her senior year. Robinson spent three years at Tennessee before earning All-America status in her senior year playing for Nebraska.

Robinson was No. 19 in the Senior Aces for the Class of 2010. This is what we wrote about her at the time:

19. Kelsey Robinson, 6-1 OH, St. Francis (Wheaton, Illinois), Sports Performance – Tennessee
A smooth, fluid, dynamic, six-rotation outside hitter, Robinson is capable of attacking on either pin and is also a threat to score out of the back row.  She is skilled and she is fast – fast off the floor, fast arm and fast to the ball. After being hobbled by a severe case of shin splints during the 2008-2009 high school and club seasons, Robinson put on 10 pounds of muscle over the summer and pushed her jump touch beyond 10 feet, transforming her from merely “scary” to “monstrous.” Robinson has a very strong jump serve to go along with greatly improved backcourt skills. Her serving, passing and defense will make her a candidate for early playing time at Tennessee, where she has committed.

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A six-rotation middle at Illinois’ Collinsville HS, near St. Louis, Michelle Bartsch had extreme six-rotation ability even as a young player. She started all four years for her high school team, including a sophomore year, before she committed to Illinois, where she amassed 298 kills, 248 blocks and 374 digs for a team that was 28-4-5. Bartsch played for one of my favorite club coaches, Kari Lane, at SWIL, and was always funs to watch, because she made the game look easy. Here’s what we wrote about her in 2008:

16. Michelle Bartsch, 6-3 MB, Collinsville (IL), Southwest Illinois — Illinois
POP!!  And everybody looks over to see where the loud noise came from.  It’s Bartsch, hitting a ball off someone’s arms or off of the floor.  The Southern Illinois Class AA Player of the year as a junior has left many marks on girls’ arms and on the floor.  Bartsch may be 6-3, but she can pass and dig the ball like shorter, accomplished defensive players and has the skin marks to prove it.  She has a dynamite jump serve, excellent setting abilities and can hit the ball from anywhere in the front row or back row.  Committed to play at Illinois, Bartsch will make an immediate impact as a freshman and will be “Fighting” her way into the starting lineup as an “Illini” as early as next season.  

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I love middle Haleigh Washington! Not because I gasped at her blazing slide attack too many times during her club career, but because she is one of the most interesting and engaging people I have ever come to know. Watch what she does in the years to come. It’s bound to be profound. Washington is the only indoor Olympian to be No. 1 in the PrepVolleyball.com Senior Aces (Beach Olympian Alix Klineman also was No. 1). Here’s what we wrote about her back in 2014:

1. Haleigh Washington, 6-3 MB, Doherty (Colorado Springs, Colorado), Colorado Juniors – Penn State
Forty-eight kills. 48! A state record! That’s how many balls Washington put down on Saturday in a five-set win over Colorado 5A favorite Grandview. It was a crowning achievement for the top recruit in the 2014 class. PrepVolleyball.com first heard about Washington in December, 2009, when Colorado Juniors director Judy Peer told us about a new middle on her 15s team that was touching 10-4. Well, she’s touching 10-9 now and, with three years of training under her belt, is one of the most polished and prolific attackers playing anywhere. Washington’s arm is blazing fast and when she attacks off of one foot, you can put it on the board because no one’s getting a touch on it let alone digging it up. The 2012 Gatorade Player of the Year has been courted by the boys’ basketball team at Doherty because she can do what many of the boys cannot do… DUNK!! A state-ranked high jumper, Washington’s long arms give her the potential to be a sizable block and she is an eager learner. Washington excels in theater but she is no drama queen. She has a winning personality and makes everyone feel special. A player who deflects personal praise, Washington will be an asset at Penn State both in the locker room and also on the court, where her terminal spikes are sure to bring the crowd in Happy Valley to their feet early and often.

Jordyn Poulter playing for Front Range

My strongest memory of setter Jordyn Poulter isn’t watching her play, which I did often (and with amazement) during her time at Front Range. Rather, it was standing on a stage at Crossroads, talking about Poulter in front of 10,000 people while presenting her with the Andi Collins Award as the nation’s top senior setter. She and her parents were so gracious! Jim Stone, the former Ohio State head coach, told me long before Poulter was a household name that she was going to be special one day. As always, he was spot on. Here’s what we wrote about her for the Aces back in 2014:

3. Jordyn Poulter, 6-2 S, Eaglecrest (Centennial, Colorado), Front Range — Illinois
Poulter makes people better. A skilled setter who brings size and athleticism to the position, she trained with national team coach Karch Kiraly’s U23 team for three weeks last season. Without her, Eaglecrest’s high school team slumped to fifth place in league. She returned and the team not only got to state for the third time in her three years in the program, it finished third! That’s the kind of impact player Poulter is. Poulter has a great understanding of the game and knows how to run the offense. Most good setters are good in system but what separates Poulter is her ability out of system to get hitters in rhythm and her courage to set hitters from anywhere on the court.  She also packs quite a punch when she attacks and blocks like a college player already. Poulter is determined and measured in her competitiveness, and brings a steady and steely disposition which infects the teams she sets, making them very tough to beat.  She has played at the highest level in her age group in the world and has done more than hold her own, as she was voted “Best Setter” in 2013 while playing in Thailand with the USA Youth National Team and repeated that honor this past summer with the USA Junior National Team. A great leader, friend to all and coach on the floor, Poulter will come to Illinois ready to make an indelible mark on the program.

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A small town Nebraska girl, I will always remember outside hitter Jordan Larson as a key player in the epic duels between her Nebraska Juniors squad and the Mizuno Long Beach team starring Klineman. Larson’s team finished top five in 18 Open her last two years before she went on to a starring role with the Cornhuskers. In high school, Larson set kills and aces records her senior year. Her top-spin jump serve would light opposing defenses up!

Larson was No. 2 behind Cynthia Barboza in the 2005 Senior Aces. This is what we wrote about her at the time:

2. Jordan Larson, 6-1 OH, Logan View (Hooper, NE), Nebraska Juniors – Nebraska
Dubbed “Volleyball’s Jordan,” there’s nothing Larson can’t do on the volleyball court. She has the complete game: passing, defending, blocking, and she possesses a volleyball body that can withstand the rigors of taking swing after swing after swing. Her jump serve is a devastating weapon that can turn around games and matches. On the left, she brings extreme heat with what is undoubtedly the fastest arm swing the country. Larson has committed to Nebraska. 

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There you have it, the 12 players who will vie for a medal in Tokyo. The world will be watching. We’ll be rooting. USA! USA!

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1 COMMENT

  1. Micha Hancock played all four years at Penn State. She did verbally commit to Tulsa, but instead signed with Penn State. She played for Oklahoma Peak Performance (Op2) for club.

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