When we last saw the U.S. women in the Olympics, in the 2012 championship match, they crushed Brazil in the first set.
It looked like it was going to be a runaway and the USA would win its first Olympic women’s volleyball gold medal.
And then the bottom fell out, as Brazil walked away with the gold, 11-25, 25-17, 25-20, 25-17.
Fast forward nearly four years and the last time we saw the U.S. women in action was July 16 in the Grand Prix final in Thailand. In this one, Brazil came away with a 3-2 victory, 18-25, 25-17, 25-23, 22-25, 15-9.
Clearly the USA has to beat Brazil, which is now the home team for the 2016 Olympics that start Saturday in Rio de Janeiro.
“We didn’t get what we wanted out of Grand Prix,” USA setter Alisha Glass admitted. “We would have like to have won, but it was a good battle and we fought hard. They played well. We got back into the gym and worked on the things we needed to work on and we’re excited about getting down to Rio and fighting some people off. We’re in a good space.”
If nothing else, that space shows the U.S. still ranked No. 1 in the world. But in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, that hardly matters.
“We’re fired up to get down there and start competing,” libero Kayla Banwarth said. “We used our loss against Brazil to see what our weaknesses are and continue to get better.”
This is coach Karch Kiraly’s first Olympics as the head coach and he sports a record of 118-23 since taking over in September 2012. He was an assistant to Hugh McCutcheon in 2012 as the U.S. won silver for the third time in history, previously in 1984 and 2008..
It’s also the first Olympics for Glass, Banwarth, and six of their teammates, Kelsey Robinson, Kim Hill, Karsta Lowe, Rachael Adams, Carli Lloyd and Kelly Murphy. In other words, eight of the 12 players, two-thirds of the roster, are playing in the Olympics for the first time.
And that’s a big reason why Courtney Thompson is on the team. The setter, at 31 the oldest player, is invaluable on and off the court.
“Courtney is someone you want in your gym,” said two-time Olympian Kevin Barnett, who will serve as the analyst for the NBC broadcasts. “Courtney is someone you want on your team. She is somebody you want on your bus, somebody you want in your hotel, somebody you want in your meetings.”
That isn’t lost on McCutcheon, who also guided the USA men to gold in 2008.
“Courtney is a wonderful volleyball player, of course, and everyone wants to talk about the culture piece and sure she’s a critical part of that because she brings a wonderful competitive mindset to the moment,” McCutcheon said. “However, you shouldn’t somehow let that get in the way of the fact that she can flat out play.
“She can put a serve anywhere she wants to, she’s tenacious, and relentless on defense and she can throw up the hittable in rhythm ball. It’s great to see her getting another crack at it and she’ll be a big plus for that group.
Thompson is the team’s third setter behind Glass and Lloyd. Glass missed time in 2015 with an ankle injury and should Glass go down Kiraly would likely go with a 6-2 with the 5-foot-8 Thompson and the 5-11 Lloyd.
Both Barnett and McCutcheon, when talking about Thompson, reminded of the role that Scott Touzinsky played on the men’s 2008 team when the USA won gold.
“When you’re selecting for the Olympics, maybe the top eight or nine spots are about performance, but then you have to really look at the people who are going to help the team,” McCutcheon said. “The ones who might only play one or two points, but can still come and bring it every day and support the team.”
Glass would likely have been a huge factor in 2012, but she broke a finger before the winter before the Games. McCutcheon is a big fan.
“I think Alisha is a wonderful setter,” McCutcheon said. “I’m so happy for her to be in there. She’s awesome. She knows how to keep her hitters in rhythm, she makes the right choices at the right time and most importantly she can manage the big moments. She knows how to win.”
Three other seasoned veterans will lead the team, outside Jordan Larson, middle Christa Dietzen and middle Foluke Akinradewo. For that matter, everyone on the team but Lowe and Lloyd were part of the team that won the 2014 FIVB World Championship. And Lowe, the big lefty who is the youngest member of this team, was the MVP of the 2015 FIVB World Grand Prix that the USA won.
Dietzen, captain of that team, has obviously been a steadying force on the young team, preaching the message that it’s not just another tournament but it has to be treated like just another tournament.
“This is the world’s biggest stage of sports,” she said. “We’re excited, but the ball weighs the same and the court is the same size. It’s just called the Olympics. From now until the last practice before the gold-medal match, we still have to find ways to get better.”
Dietzen is a former Penn State star. Another former Nittany Lion, Glass, obviously gets her message.
“That would be the ultimate goal, to try to treat it like any other international tournament and try to win. That being said, most people will tell you that’s a struggle, to get into that head space and I think there are going to be moments when it feels really big, feels like the Olympics,” Glass said.
“But we have a really good group and people are will to say that the moment is getting away from me and we have a lot of people on the team who can help that and help people through that. If you know that to be true I think we’re going to be pretty solid dealing with whatever comes up and be ‘Us’ at every stage of the tournament.”
A big key will be to keep Glass from running all over the court and not playing out of system.
“The U.S. struggles to kill high balls, whether to the left or right,” Barnett offered. “If the U.S. can pass and stay in rhythm, oh are they dangerous. Foluke Akinaredewo is playing the best volleyball of her career. She is a dominant force in the middle, but you have to pass in order to get her the ball. She is just gnarly when you get her the ball.”
That’s not lost on Banwarth.
I’m a better passer than I am a defender so there’s been a big focus for me the past two weeks to dig more balls.”
As a team, she said, “We identified four or five big things we need to get better at,” Banwarth said. “For example we need to get better at receiving serve cross-court from their area five to our area five.
“Just things like that to work on that can give us a little bit of an advantage. There’s definitely been a sense of urgency these past two weeks to get better.”
Banwarth is fully healthy, but should she go down, Robinson, the third outside hitter but a strong defensive player, would become the libero.
Hill, MVP of the 2014 World Grand Prix, will be the other outside, while Lowe and Murphy are the opposites. Adams is the third middle.
“We are fired up,” Thompson said. “We’ve put a lot of work into this and now it’s time to go compete and bring our best. That’s the big reason why we play.”
2016 Olympic Games Women’s Indoor Volleyball Pools
Pool A: Argentina, Brazil, Cameroon, Japan, Korea, Russia
Pool B: China, Italy, Netherlands, Puerto Rico, Serbia, USA
(All Times Eastern)
Japan vs. Korea, 8:30 a.m.
China vs. Netherlands, 10:35 a.m.
Brazil vs. Cameroon, 2 p.m.
USA vs. Puerto Rico, 4:05 p.m.
Russia vs. Argentina, 7:30 p.m.
Serbia vs. Italy, 9:35 p.m.
China vs. Italy, 8:30 a.m.
Japan vs. Cameroon, 10:35 a.m.
USA vs. Netherlands, 2 p.m.
Serbia vs. Puerto Rico, 4:05 p.m.
Russia vs. Korea, 7:30 p.m.
Brazil vs. Argentina, 9:35 p.m.
China vs. Puerto Rico, 8:30 a.m.
Italy vs. Netherlands, 10:35 a.m.
USA vs. Serbia, 2 p.m.
Russia vs. Cameroon, 4:05 p.m.
Korea vs. Argentina, 7:30 p.m.
Brazil vs. Japan, 9:35 p.m.
China vs. Serbia, 8:30 a.m.
Argentina vs. Cameroon, 10:35 a.m.
USA vs. Italy, 2 p.m.
Netherlands vs. Puerto Rico, 4:05 p.m.
Russia vs. Japan, 7:30 p.m.
Brazil vs. Korea, 9:35 p.m.
Serbia vs. Netherlands, 8:30 a.m.
Korea vs. Cameroon, 10:35 a.m.
Italy vs. Puerto Rico, 2 p.m.
USA vs. China, 4:05 p.m.
Japan vs. Argentina, 7:30 p.m.
Brazil vs. Russia, 9:35 p.m.