Back to Shreveport. 

Well, actually neighboring Bossier City, Louisiana, where the USA women play in the first round of the 16-nation Volleyball Nations League. It was in northwest Louisiana in 2019 that the USA clinched its spot in the Tokyo Olympics.

The defending Olympic gold-medalists open play at 8 p.m. Central Tuesday in the Brookshire Grocery Arena against the Dominican Republic. Action begins at 5 p.m. when Germany plays Brazil.

The USA is then off two days before playing Canada on Friday and Brazil on Saturday.

Then the Americans’ portion of the tournament moves to the Phillipines. The other first-round site is in Turkey.

The top eight teams will qualify for the single-elimination quarterfinals July 13 in Ankara, Turkey. The VNL this season is as important as ever, as it will be the only major event before the 2022 FIVB World Championship in September.

Here’s a look at the teams the USA and the teams the Americas will play in the next week:

USA — The Americans are the three-time defending champions and enter the competition with a mixture of new players on the big stage and some experienced international veterans. The roster is 25 total, with 14 at the tournament. The two Olympians are opposites Jordan Thompson and Annie Drews. Thompson was spectacular at the start of the Tokyo Games, but then got hurt, which opened the door for Drews, who was also phenomenal.

Jordan Thompson-Tokyo Olympics
China’s X.Y. Yuan gets a couple of fingers on the Jordan Thompson spike during the Tokyo Olympics/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Two Stanford greats are on the squad, libero Morgan Hentz, who just had a big-time season for Athletes Unlimited, and setter Jenna Gray, who played in Germany. 

The other setter is Lauren Carlini, the former Wisconsin All-American who is having a tremendous pro career.

The middles include two former Minnesota standouts in Tori Dixon and Sarah Wilhite, Wisconsin player of the year Dana Rettke, Brionne Butler of Texas and recent Louisville standout Anna Stevenson. 

The outsides are Penn State’s Ali Frantti, Arizona’s Madi Kingdon Rishel, Washington’s Kara Bajema and the libero is Penn State’s Kendall White.

Click here for our story about the entire roster chosen by coach Karch Kiraly.

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC — The DR is coming off an Olympic quarterfinal appearance and a NORCECA championship, After a solid club season in Turkey, opposite Gaila Gonzales will look to lead the Dominican Republic, which finished sixth in the VNL last season. She will be joined by the Martinez sisters, outside Brayelin and middle Jineiry. Niverka Marte has been the setter since 2010. Outside Yonkaira Peña will attempt to establish herself in the starting lineup after a strong season in Brazil. All-time great and Athletes Unlimited star Bethania De La Cruz has been with the national team since 2007. Libero Brenda Castillo, regarded as one of the best in the world, is coming off a strong season in Italy.

CANADA — Canada is a challenger team, joined by Poland, Dominican Republic, and Belgium, meaning whichever of the four has the worst finish will be relegated from the VNL at the end of the competition. Our northern neighbors are led by BYU product Alexa Gray, who has become one of the best attacking outsides in the world. Gray may be joined on the outside by Arizona State’s Andrea Mitrovic or Hilary Howe. Former Michigan State star Autumn Bailey is still sidelined by injury. Kiera Van Ryk, the 2021 VNL third-best scorer, will hold down the opposite position, and former Florida Gator Shainah Joseph hopes to get in the mix. A trio of former NCAA players will lead the middle blockers, including Emily Maglio (Hawaii), captain Jennifer Cross (Michigan), and Alicia Ogoms (USC). Brie King will lead the offense while Kim Robitaille will provide backup. Santa Clara libero Katerina Georgiadis will compete for the libero position with Arielle Palmero and Julia Murmann.

BRAZIL — Brazil took silver the last two VNLs, losing to the USA in 2019 and 2021, and, of course, lost to the USA in the Olympic gold-medal match. 

Leading Brazil are Olympic stars

Brazil’s Macris Carneiro sets on the run during the Tokyo Olympics/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

Gabi and Macris, but there will be many new faces for as Natalia, Sheilla, Camila Brait and Fe Garay have all ended their international careers while Carol Gattaz is taking a break. Tandara Caixeta’s suspension for performance-enhancing drugs from the Tokyo Olympics was also recently upheld.

One of the new players is one NCAA fans know well, Georgia Tech’s Julia Bergmann.

Bergmann returns to the senior national team after being a part of the 2019 VNL team. Ana Cristina, just 18, also looks to be one of coach Ze Roberto’s young stars, having spent this past season playing in Turkey. Outside Pri Daroit returns to the national team for the first time since 2013. Lorrene and newcomer Kisy will compete for the opposite spot while Nyeme and Natinha look to continue Brazil’s strong libero tradition.

When the Americans travel to Quezon City, Phillipines, they’ll play Bulgaria, Poland, China and Thailand.

BULGARIA — When Russia got kicked out, Bulgaria got the nod. Bulgaria last competed in the 2019 VNL, where it finished last and was relegated. Later that summer, they would push the USA to five sets, narrowly losing 3-2 in the Olympic qualification tournament. Bulgaria will compete with both veteran and new players. Outside hitter Elitsa Vasileva is Bulgaria’s star, who Miroslava Paskova will most likely join on the outside. Bulgaria will be led in the middle by Mira Todorova and Hristina Vuchkova. Opposite Emiliya Dimitrova will be absent due to unknown reasons. Opposite Iva Dudova, just 16, is included in Bulgaria’s wide roster and might be the youngest player in the competition.

CHINA — China may have been the most surprising shock of the Tokyo Olympics, not even reaching the knockout stage. The legendary Jenny Lang Ping will no longer coach the national team, succeeded by Cai Bin, who was previously the head coach in 2009.

China will rely on some experience and new faces in 2022. Stars Zhu Ting and Zhang Changning will not be available. Outside Li Yingying, who put on impressive performances last summer, will lead the team. Recently named captain, Yuan Xinyue returns as the veteran presence in the middle for China as Yan Ni has retired. Ding Xia is the setter. Fellow setter Yao Di is injured. Opposite Gong Xiangyu also returns as one of the last remaining members of the team that won Olympic gold in 2016, along with Yuan and Ding Xia.

POLAND — Poland is the host of the 2022 World Championship later this fall. Stars Magdalena Stysiak and Malwina Smarzek are out. Stysiak was the VNL’s second-best scorer in 2021, with 283 points. Joanna Wołosz, one of the best setters in the world, will make her return to the national team. Wolosz was absent in 2021 but was convinced by new coach Stefano Lavarini to return. Poland finished 11th in 2021. Veteran libero Maria Stenzel, middle Anna Stencel and Wolosz will lead a team with many young players, which includes outsides Martyna Lukasik and Martyna Czyrianska. Former USC middle Aleksandra Gryka was also named to the roster.

THAILAND — Thailand said goodbye to one of the most iconic volleyball groups in the 2021 VNL, the Fab Five. But if the hype is to be met with results, the new generation of Thai volleyball may be even more exciting. Thailand will be led by their pins, who had  strong seasons in Turkey. They include Chatchu-on Moksri and Ajcharaporn Kongyot. Thailand has several players who play in Japan, including likely starters opposite Pimpichaya Kokram and middle blockers Thatdao Nuekjang and Hattaya Bamrungsuk. Pornpun Guedpard is set to replace Thailand’s legendary setter Nootsara Thomkom. This generation of new players from Thailand was set to play in the 2021 VNL but had to withdraw after their camp contracted COVID. Thailand finished last.

The USA then moves to Calgary, Alberta, on July 1, for matches against Serbia, Turkey and Germany

SERBIA — Perennial favorite Serbia will be sporting a completely different look under new coach Danielle Santarelli. Tijana Boskovic and Maja Ognjenovic will not play, so young players opposite Sara Caric, middle Maja Aleksic and outside Katarina Lazovic will attempt to improve on last year’s 13th-place finish. Rejoining the Serbian squad will be middle blocker Jovana Stevanovic, who has been absent from the recent Serbian teams. She will attempt to replace Milena Rasic, who recently announced her pregnancy. Jovana Kocic, the 2021 VNL top blocker, may also play.

TURKEY — Turkey will look to rebound from their shocking quarterfinal exit to Korea in the Olympics. Turkey finished the 2021 VNL in third place, after getting swept by the USA in the semifinals, but goes into the VNL as one of the favorites with the most experienced roster. It includes local stars and past Olympians, including Cansu Ozbay, Zehra Günes, Ebrar Karakurt, and Eda Erdem, who was named best middle blocker at the 2021 VNL. Familiar faces missing from the Turkish team will be Naz Aydemir and Kubra Akman.

The final rounds are in Turkey, so you know this team wants to do well.

Coach Giovanni Guidetti will look to stabilize the outside-hitter position, calling on Tugba Senoglu, Hande Baladin, Meliha Ismailoglu, Saliha Sahin, Ilkin Aydin, and Derya Cebecioglu. Libero Ayca Aykac will challenge Simge Aköz for the starting spot.

GERMANY — 2022 began a time of change for the German national team. Head coach Felix Koslowski stepped down and was replaced by Vital Heynen. Star opposite Louisa Lippmann switched to beach volleyball while setter Denise Imodou retired The Germans will be led by pin hitter Lena Stigrot, who is coming off the best season in her career in Italy. Setters Pia Kastner and Corina Glaab will succeed Imodou. Hanna Orthmann and Jennifer Janiska will remain as regulars on the outside, joined by the potential new star Lina Alsmeier. Stanford graduate Ivana Vanjak will also join the Germans, playing outside hitter and opposite. Anna Pogany has locked down the libero spot, while Camila Weitzel and Marie Scholzel will return as the German middle blocker duo. They will be challenged by the young middle, Anastasia Cekulaev, who is only 18. Germany finished 10th in 2021.

Also in the tournament are Italy, Japan, Korea, Belgium and the Netherlands

ITALY — Italy is one of the favorites. Italy finished 13th in 2021, but that squad did not include any of its Olympic team players. Coach Davide Mazzanti’s squad will look to rebound from an Olympics quarterfinal exit. Italy has not been on an international podium since the 2018 World Championships. Italy will be led by one of, if not the, best player in the world opposite Paola Egonu. She will be joined by outstanding libero Monica De Gennaro.

National team regulars will also return, including outsider hitters Cate Bosetti, Miriam Sylla, Elena Pietrini, setters Alessia Orro and Ofelia Malinov, and middle blockers Cristina Chirichella and Anna Danesi. Notable absences for Italy will be middle blockers Sarah Fahr, who recently re-tore her ACL, and Raphaela Folie.

Many young players will look to make their mark during the VNL including opposite Sylvia Nwakalor, outside Alice Degradi, middle Marina Lubian and setter Francesca Bosio.

JAPAN — This is a year of change for Japan. Drastic measures were taken after the very disappointing performance at the Tokyo Olympics, where the team did not reach the knockout round. Former head coach Kumi Nakada was replaced with Masayoshi Manabe, who previously coached Japan from 2009 to 2016. Manabe will attempt to revitalize the Japanese style of volleyball, which was noticeably missing under Nakada. Japan will be led by new captain outside Sarina Koga. This team will be tasked with replacing several legendary Japanese players, including libro Mako Kobata and middle Erika Araki, who have retired. Young Mayu Ishikawa may be set to join Koga on the left side, but newcomers Airi Miyabe (who is having a tremendous career at Minnesota) and sister Ameze Miyabe will also compete for the position. Airi may also be tasked with replacing opposite Ai Kurogo, who has taken a break from volleyball after the Olympics.

NETHERLANDS — As one of the hosts for the 2022 World Championships, the Netherlands will use the VNL to answer questions about the lineup. Setter Laura Dijkema will provide the Dutch with a veteran presence. Departures from the Dutch team include middle blockers Robin De Kruijf and Yvon Belien, who have retired, while outside Maret Grothues will be absent for the VNL. Outsides Nika Daalderop or Jolien Knollema may be the answer for the Dutch, both coming off strong seasons in Italy, while outside Anne Buijs could provide a veteran presence. Daalderop was the fifth-best scorer at the 2021 VNL. The Dutch will look to their youth in the middle, with Eline Timmerman, Indy Baijens, and Juilet Lohius providing a powerful trio of options. Opposite will be the position with the most question marks for the Dutch as they may look to former outside hitter from the Rio Olympics Celeste Plak or young up and comer Elles Dambrink, who is only 18.

KOREA — Korea had a magical run in the Tokyo Olympics, finishing fourth. However, this Korean squad will face many questions. The legendary Kim Yeon-koung retired from international play and it’s impossible to replace a player of her stature and capabilities. Korea will look to new players to begin a new era, since only four players return from the Tokyo Olympics, including setter Yeum Hye-seon, opposite Kim Hee-jin, and outside hitters Park Jeong-ah and Jeong Ji-yun. Jeong will miss the VNL with injury. Middle blocker Lee Ah-ju returns to the national team, having been absent since 2019. Returning from the 15th-place team in 2021 includes outside hitter Jeong Ji-yun, middle blocker Lee Da-hyeon, and Han Da-hye. The rest of the Korean roster has minimal international experience.

BELGIUM — Belgium, ninth last year, is also looking to avoid relegation. Belgium will be led by outside Britt Herbots, the best scorer in the 2021 VNL, with 337 points. Due to alleged mistreatment of players by head coach Gert Vande Broek, they will be without some of their best players. Helene Rousseaux, Ilka Van de Vyver, Lise Van Hecke, and Laura Heyrman will not represent their country. The investigation by Belgium’s Federal Public Prosecutor’s office is still ongoing. Vande Broek has the support of Herbots and Belgium’s federation. Herbots will be joined on the court by outside Celine Van Gestel (OH), who had a strong season in Italy, and middle Marlies Janssens, the second-best blocker and best server at the 2021 VNL. With an injury, Kaja Grobelna, Belgium’s second-best player, will miss the VNL. Van de Vyver’s younger sister, Jutta, may be the starting setter, but she will face competition from Elise Van Sas.

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