BOSSIER CITY, Louisiana — The run to Paris 2024 begins Tuesday.
And it’s a shorter run than usual. Since the Tokyo Olympics were delayed a year, that means this quad is only three years.
First up, the USA women play the Dominican Republic at 8 p.m. Central in the Volleyball Nations League. The action here starts at 5 p.m. when Brazil plays Germany. Both matches can be seen on VolleyballWorld.tv. Read the overall preview here.
“I think we’re going to learn a lot this week,” said USA coach Karch Kiraly, whose team then plays Canada on Friday, Brazil on Saturday and Japan on Sunday. “We’re going to get a nice challenge (from those teams) and we’ve got a nice blend of experience and youth and we’re really excited to see how it comes together.”
The team here features only two of the 12 Olympians who won gold last summer in Tokyo, and they’re both opposites, Cincinnati product Jordan Thompson and Purdue’s Annie Drews.
In Tokyo, the 6-foot-4 Thompson was arguably the best player through the early part of tournament.
“She was on fire,” Kiraly said.
But then the high-flying, hard-hitting Thompson sprained her right ankle and never returned.
“I think one of the most exciting parts of the story here is that this is the first time that Jordan Thompson’s been truly healthy since her injury in Tokyo,” Kiraly said. “She did go to play sone in Istanbul for a club team there, but never was truly healthy. And things went sideways. They were not very helpful there and eventually they parted ways and she came home to get healthy.
“She didn’t just get healthy today, but this is the first time she’s going to put on any uniform and play healthy since Tokyo. So we’re super excited about that.”
The great news for the USA was that Drews, a 6-4 left-hander, came in was equally spectacular. Drews, 29, is the senior citizen of the group here.
“To state the obvious, there are a lot new faces,” said Drews, who plays in Japan for JT Marvelous. “You’re going to a lot of new faces throughout the summer and a lot of old favorites as well. “And there’s a little bit of like that one year you’re considered young and the next year you come back and you’re a veteran. And people are you questions like you know what you’re doing. It’s cool to see that other side and what comes with that is a little more responsibility and also some freedom.”
Another veteran is setter Lauren Carlini. Carlini, 27, was all-everything at Wisconsin and has had a pro career that has taken her to Italy and Russia, last season to Turkey, and she’ll return to Italy next year. She was an Olympic alternate last summer and couldn’t be more excited to be here.
“Honestly, it’s really good to be back in a USA uniform and back with the team. Kind of like a fresh start,” Carlini said. “It’s good to be back competing and starting off in the United States, making travel easier and starting off the tournament on the right foot.”
Indeed, because when this part of the VNL ends here, the team will return to Anaheim and then depart for the Philippines for the next leg when the USA plays Bulgaria, Poland, China and Thailand. Then it’s on to Calgary for matches against Belgium, Serbia, Turkey and Germany before, presumably, going to Turkey for the quarterfinals.
“I think what’s different is that there’s a world championship at the end of this season,” Kiraly said. “If this were a true year after the Olympics there would be continental championships. So I think all the teams are feeling on the one hand that they want to get younger players going and on the other understanding they only have a couple of years to try and help develop people as much as they can leading up to the Paris Olympics.”
Fourteen of the 25 players on the USA roster are here. Some simply needed time off, like Chiaka Ogbogu and Kathryn Plummer, “who were playing just eight days ago overseas and need some rest,” Kiraly said. “They’ll be back in the gym soon and you can look for them in the later parts of the VNL.”
The other setter on the team is Stanford product Jenna Gray. The liberos are her former teammate Morgan Hentz and Kendall White of Penn State. The outsides are Arizona’s Madi Kingdon Rishel, Minnesota’s Sarah Wilhite Parsons, Washington’s Kara Bajema and Penn State’s Ali Frantti. The middles are Minnesota’s Tori Dixon, Brionne Butler of Texas, Wisconsin’s Dana Rettke, and Louisville’s Anna Stevenson.
Dixon and Wilhite Parsons were also Olympic alternates. Dixon and Kingdon Rishel were teammates of Carlini’s on their Turkish Airlines squad. Two of their pro teammates are here, Kiera Van Ryk of Canada and Hanna Orthmann of Germany.
“I’m real excited to see what this new group can do,” Carlini said, “coming off what the team did, winning an Olympic gold medal. I’m just pumped to be back here and getting the opportunity to play.”
And it’s way different, she said, than playing with their respective pro teams.
“I was so pleasantly surprised coming back into our gym. There’s just this level of freedom and joy that we don’t have a lot of the time when we’re overseas with our pro teams,” Carlini said. “The grind is real. We’re over there for eight months and you’re really ingrained in those systems with certain coaches who maybe aren’t as open like our coaches are here with Team USA.
“Coming back and having that confidence and that freedom has been big for me, especially, but I know a lot of these girls are having those same feelings walking in and coming back in a USA uniform.”
The VNL also got underway Tuesday in Ankara, Turkey, when Thailand swept Bulgaria and Turkey swept Italy.