USA, with Robinson at libero, sweeps Italy to cap VNL homestand

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Michelle Bartsch-Hackley-Foluke Akinradewo
Michelle Bartsch-Hackley and Foluke Akinradewo block against Italy/USA Volleyball photo

By Gabriel Vegas Valente for VolleyballMag.com
LINCOLN, Nebraska – The USA bounced back from its five-set loss against Turkey and ended its first week at the 2018 Volleyball Nations League on a high note after a three-match series on home soil.

The second-ranked Americans swept No. 7 Italy 25-21, 25-18, 25-21 Thursday at the Bob Devaney Sports Center on the campus of the University of Nebraska to finish the three-matches here 2-1. Italy leaves 0-3.

Earlier Thursday,  No. 12 Turkey swept No. 22 Poland 25-21, 25-17, 25-23 for its third consecutive win –- and Poland’s second loss –- in the Nations League.

Next up: Team USA travels to Toyota, Japan, to play the host country on Tuesday. The Poles travel to Macau to face China on Tuesday, while the Turks fly back home to play Brazil in Ankara. Italy goes to Suwon, Korea to play Russia.

USA tops Italy:  After struggling with serve receive in the first two matches, USA coach Karch Kiraly experimented a change at libero. Outside hitter Kelsey Robinson started and handled it with aplomb.

“She’s a world-class receiver,” Kiraly said . “She was one of the best passers at the (2016 Rio Olympics.”

It was Robinson’s first time playing at libero in a competition match for Team USA, although the 6-foot-2 former Nebraska player had been one at time for her professional clubs in Europe. Another former Nebraska player, Justine Wong-Orantes, had been the libero the first two matches.

“It’s just exciting for me to be on the court in any way,” Robinson said. “It was definitely a challenge that Karch put me up to, but I was stoked to be out there.”

As service reception improved, setter Carli Lloyd got comfortable to execute Kiraly’s game plan.

“It certainly helps to have better service reception,” Kiraly said, “so that she [Lloyd] doesn’t have to get her track shoes on and chase down errant contacts around the gym. So, that makes it easier for her to run the offense we are looking to run.”

Kiraly’s “USA Fast” offense put pressure on Italy’s serving for most of the game, forcing 23 opponent errors. Italy forced the U.S. to only eight. Both team had 37 kills and the Americans held an 8-5 blocking advantage.

Outside hitters Kim Hill and Jordan Larson led USA’s offense with nine and seven kills, respectively. Opposite Kelly Murphy added seven kills and two blocks, while middle Foluke Akinradewo hit .500 after getting six kills in 12 attempts.

The USA opened the tournament by beating Poland on Tuesday, but lost in five to Turkey on Wednesday.

“We just knew we had to come out with a sense of urgency and I thought we did that, we were attacking from the beginning,” said Larsen, another former Nebraska player. “I think we had a little bit of a low there in the third set, but then we came out stronger. I’m really proud of our team for bouncing back after yesterday’s disappointing loss.”

For the Italians, middle Marina Lubian had eight kills and outside hitter Anastasia Guerra  seven. Middle Rosseta Olivotto had four kills, two blocks and two aces.

After starting the Volleyball Nations League with three losses in a row, Italy coach Davide Mazzanti praised his team’s aggressive serving, but looks to make changes before his team plays Russia.

“I think there’s room for improvement on transition,” Mazzanti said. “I think we gave away too much in this situation, and we can work better in the second round.”

Turkey defeats Poland: The unbeaten Turks topped the Poles in kills (40-31), service aces (4-3) and opponent errors (16-13). Poland outblocked Turkey 11-8.

Turkish outside hitter Meliha Ismailoglu had 11 kills and two blocks while Seyma Ercan hit .500 after getting nine kills in 18 attempts, along with two aces and a block. Middle Eda Erdem Dündar added six kills and three blocks.

“The VNL started much, much better than my expectations,” Turkey coach Giovanni Guidetti said. “Still, we can’t forget our mission, our goal, which is becoming better as a team, day-by-day, and be prepared for the (FIVB) World Championship.”

Outside hitter Malwina Smarzek led the Poles with 12 kills and two blocks. Middle Agnieszka Kakolewska, who had four kills and four blocks, was irritated by her team’s poor performance.

“(The loss) was just about attitude,” Kakolewska said. “We just have to think about it and focus on the next game.”

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