By Gabriel Vegas Valente for VolleyballMag.com
LINCOLN, Nebraska –- In a night marked by the return of former Olympian Jordan Larson to her alma mater, another outside hitter stole the show in the USA’s opening match in the 2018 Volleyball Nations League.
Former Illinois star Michelle Bartsch-Hackley had 25 kills and two blocks to lead the world-ranked No. 2 USA over No. 22 Poland 28-26, 25-22, 22-25, 25-15 Tuesday at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on the University of Nebraska campus.
Next up: The USA plays Turkey at 7:30 p.m. Central Wednesday. Earlier Tuesday, No. 12 Turkey swept No. 7 Italy 25-21, 25-21, 25-20 behind a strong performance from outside hitter Meryem Boz, who notched 14 kills for the Turks. Italy and Poland play at 5 p.m. Central.
Hard-fought win for USA: There was a crowd of about 5,000 for the USA’s first international match of the 2018 season and much of the focus was on Larson, the former Huskers star and product of nearby Hoover. Larson, the 2012 and 2016 Olympian, had 20 points (16 kills, two blocks and two services aces).
“It was the first time I played with Jordan,” Bartsch-Hackley said. “It was really awesome, she is really great to play with. She sees unlike anyone else does, and her communication helps a lot.”
Larson has been playing for Team USA since 2009 and is the team captain.
“She’s got a hammer,” Larson said of Bartsch-Hackley. “You can see her arm. That’s definitely one thing she adds to this group.”
Kelly Murphy had 13 kills, Rachael Adams had six kills and five blocks and Foluke Akinradewo had eight kills and two blocks.
Malwina Smarzek led Poland with 22 kills and one block.
Poland led early in the first set at 5-4, when a block by Adams appeared to change the momentum towards the USA. Bartsch-Hackley had a go-ahead kill for a 6-5 lead, and the American pulled out to a 16-10 lead. Poland rallied back and took a 25-24 lead. Two Bartsch-Hackley kills gave the USA the 28-26 win.
Both teams exchanged points and leads in an excitingly even second set, and neither side was able to break away. After a huge rally at 18-18 which symbolized the balance between both teams, Larson hit a go-ahead kill for a 21-20 USA lead en route to the 25-22 win.
The third set had a similar plot to the second, but it was Poland breaking away late in the set. Led by Smarzek, the Poles held on for the 25-22 win.
In the fourth, Poland kept the score close for a while, but the USA ended up pulling away 25-15.
Karch on the win: “It was a new challenge for us, figuring stuff out on the fly,” USA coach Karch Kiraly said. “We knew very little about this team, they didn’t know much about us, because we haven’t played each other in four and a half years. All in all, good effort.”
Kiraly said his team struggled the most with serve-receive, especially in the first set.
“They are still figuring out how to read the serve,” Kiraly said. “They dropped some in at us, purposely dropped it close to the 3-meter line. We got better at managing that, but we still have a long way to go to make progress there.”
Worth noting: In 2016, the USA confirmed its spot in the Rio Olympics after winning the NORCECA Olympic Qualification Tournament, played at nearby Pinnacle Bank Arena.
“We don’t get to do it very much,” Larson said of playing at home. “So it’s important for us to take advantage of that. It’s great that we are here in Nebraska, which is the mecca of volleyball, everybody knows that.”
Two other former Huskers are on the team, starting libero Justine Wong-Orantes and Kelsey Robinson, who got in the match in the first set when she subbed for Larsen.
Turkey downs Italy: Meryem Boz led Turkey with 16 points and two blocks, while Anastasia Guerra scored 10 points for Italy.
Turkey started the first set strong, and never lost the lead to win it 25-21. Italy tried to bounce back in the second set, and while the game stayed even until the second technical timeout, the Turks quickly pulled away to win it 25-21. In the third set, the Italians led early at 10-6, but Turkey continued to impose its solid game and rallied back to win the final set 25-20.