Most of the time the United States women’s volleyball team is out of sight of most Americans.
The team trains in California, and plays its numerous tournaments each summer in such faraway places as Nanjing, China, and Okayama, Japan.
Not this week, though. On Tuesday, and for the next two nights, the U.S. national team — the second-best volleyball team in the world by rankings — is right in front of our eyes.
On Tuesday the United States beat Poland in four sets — 28-26, 25-22, 22-25, 25-15 — in the Americans’ first match in the new FIVB Volleyball Nations League. The announced attendance at the Devaney Sports Center was 5,000.
These are no exhibition matches. It’s the start of a six-week, 16-team tournament with $2.2 million in prize money for teams and individual award winners.
And what’s beginning to take shape for the Americans is a slow buildup to what gets the most attention, the once-every-four-years Olympic Games.
This is the second-year of the four-year Olympic cycle leading up to the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Last year was the first year of the cycle. In 2017 many of the returning Olympians played a limited schedule, or not at all, to get some rest after the Olympics and their professional seasons. That also gives the next group of Olympic hopefuls — players like former Nebraska libero Justine Wong-Orantes — their first chance to play a lot.
“Year 1 is probably the biggest opportunity for us to bring in lots of new people, people who haven’t spent much time with us in our gym, or maybe haven’t spent any time with USA,” said U.S. coach Karch Kiraly.
But Year 2 is different. That’s when the seven returning Olympians are back in the mix in a bigger way. Those players include Jordan Larson and Foluke Akinradewo, who have each played about 220 matches with the national team.
“Year 2 is where we get the younger people who got some experience in Year 1 and put them together right from the start with a more veteran group,” Kiraly said. “The excitement for this year is putting it all back together after we played with lots of different lineups in different competitions last year, and to see how it all fits back together.”
This year also is the first of the three major international championships, or Triple Crown events. This year is the World Championships, where the U.S. is the defending champion.
Larson has gone through the Olympic cycle twice before. She says it’s exciting when you get to the second year.
“I think the more years as you get closer to the Olympics, the competitions just get higher and higher,” Larson said. “The world championship, we won it the last time, and I think the pressure just keeps rising, so I think it makes it just that much more exciting. Also you constantly get a new wave of girls coming in. So like (former Husker setter) Kelly Hunter is now in the gym, and getting to meet her and touch base with some of these college kids is awesome.”
One of big competitions for the U.S. team this cycle is at the setter position, where the Olympic team won’t have a returning starter. Carli Lloyd was the backup setter for the last Olympics, and is the No. 1 setter for now. Her top challengers are Penn State gradate Micha Hancock and Wisconsin graduate Lauren Carlini. Lloyd and Hancock are the two setters on the roster this week, which is limited to 14 players each week.
Larson and Wong-Orantes were each in the starting lineup on Tuesday, and received huge cheers when they were introduced. Larson had 11 kills, two blocks and an ace serve.
Outside hitter Michelle Bartsch-Hackley led the Americans with 21 kills.
“I think as a team we really struggled through some points, but really we’ve only had four practices together,” Bartsch-Hackley said. “We’re really finding our rhythm with the speed. Carli and I played all summer last summer in Grand Prix. She’s really comfortable getting me a fast ball, and I love that, so it’s fun.”
In the first match of the day, Turkey defeated Italy in three sets. The U.S and Turkey will play at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.