The state of Nebraska has become a regular stop for the United States women’s volleyball team.
In recent years the national team has played matches in Ralston, in Omaha and at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln. And next week they’ll be back, this time playing at the Devaney Sports Center in Lincoln.
With most of the matches the national team plays being out of sight of most fans, and with each of the tournaments that has been played in Nebraska being called something different, it’s hard to know if the significance of each tournament is baseball’s equivalent of a spring training game or the World Series.
Lincoln will host matches in the first-ever FIVB Volleyball Nations League on May 15-17, with the U.S. team playing each night at 7 p.m.
This will be the fourth time in six years the national team has played in Nebraska. In 2013 the Americans won the gold medal in the NORCECA Women’s Continental Championship, which was played at Ralston Arena.
The Americans were back for a much bigger event in 2015, hosting the FIVB World Grand Prix Final Round at CenturyLink Center Omaha. Outside of the Olympics, that was the most prestigious event the United States had ever hosted, and the Americans won the gold.
The most memorable event came in January 2016 when Lincoln hosted the NORCECA Olympic Qualification Tournament. In was during that event that the Americans clinched their spot in the Olympics, and there was a crowd of 10,000 fans when the Americans beat Dominican Republic on the final day.
Seven months later, that was the team that the world watched in the Olympics, including three former Huskers in Jordan Larson, Kayla Banwarth and Kelsey Robinson. That team won the bronze medal.
The FIVB Volleyball Nations League is the renamed and reformatted replacement for the FIVB World Grand Prix. While some tournaments are only played every four years, this will be played annually.
Not every tournament is treated with the same importance on the international volleyball schedule. The Pan American Cup, for example, often features a lineup with players still in college or new to the national team.
And last year, the summer after the Olympics, some of the best U.S. players played a limited schedule to get some rest after a long Olympic year and their professional team seasons. Larson only played in two events. Robinson didn’t play at all.
But now we’re into Year 2 of the Olympic quadrennial, and things are beginning to ramp up for the Americans.
United States coach Karch Kiraly says the team will be taking this tournament very seriously. In other words, they’re bringing the U.S. varsity squad to Lincoln instead of the JV.
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“We’re trying to send our best possible team,” Kiraly said in a phone interview. “This is the biggest annual event we play, and the most prestigious.”
The United States also has a lot to learn about itself and the other teams before they play in the World Championship, which is one of the Triple Crown events, this fall.
Rosters are limited to 14 players each week, and once again there will be a few Nebraska players to cheer for. Robinson and Larson will be on the roster, and Justine Wong-Orantes also has a really good chance to do so.
A rare chance to play in the United States should provide lots of motivation for the players, and this is the start of a tournament where a lot of prize money is on the line. The winning players and coaches share a $1 million prize. Even third place brings $300,000.
That is an unprecedented amount of prize money for a women’s tournament. The comparable tournament for men used to have a winning prize of $1 million, while the women played for less. Now the prizes are the same for the men and women.
“It is far, far higher than it’s ever been before,” Kiraly said. “I think the highest prize money any female team could ever win before this was maybe $200,000 or $250,000.”
The men’s tournament being played at about the same time is also why the women’s matches are played during the week, and the men’s on the weekend. FIVB wants tournament volleyball being played six days per week.
After playing in Lincoln, the Americans will play each of the next four weeks in Japan, Thailand, China and Argentina. Then there is about two weeks off before the finals in China.
The World Grand Prix used to be the most grueling tournament on the schedule. Now its replacement is even more demanding, with five consecutive weeks of preliminary matches.
“Last year we played in Macau (China) one week, and finished on Sunday night and jumped on a boat, to a plane, to a plane, to a plane, and 45 hours later we were 12 time zones away in Brazil, and we played 40 hours after that,” Kiraly said. “That’s just what we do in these events.”