Lauren Carlini Leads Novara Into Italian League Final

Igor Gorgonzola Novara of Italy’s Serie A1 league downed the two-time reigning CEV Champions League winner and two-time FIVB Club World Champion VakifBank in the 2018-19 CEV Champions League semifinal to advance to the Super Final in Berlin on May 18. 

After sweeping VakifBank in the Turkish team’s home arena (something few teams have ever done before), Novara lost the second leg in four and needed to win a golden set to advance. With a dramatic 16-14 victory, they did just that. 

American setter Lauren Carlini sits at the controls for Novara, which this week will face Imoco in the Italian league final (May 1 & 4) before taking on the same squad again in the Champions League conclusion (both of which you can watch live right here on FloVolleyball). The four-time All-American from the University of Wisconsin spent her first season with Italian league squad Scandicci before joining Novara last fall. 

Carlini spoke with FloVolleyball about these upcoming high-stakes matches via WhatsApp during a precious few free days she was spending at her Novara and Team USA teammate Michelle Bartsch-Hackley’s house in Dornbirn, Austria.

FloVolleyball: You’re two years into your pro career, has it lived up to expectations?

Oh man, it has been a wild ride, that’s for sure. Definitely some lows and highs. But I feel like I’ve just learned so much over the past two years. I look back and I’m like I can’t believe just over two years ago I was still in college in Madison.

Flo: What did you not anticipate about pro volleyball life?

How much free time you would have. I didn’t know that the majority of the time, depending on the team, of course, but most of it’s yours. You have one or two practices a day, but that’s a couple hours here and there and other than that, the rest of the time is yours. In college, you have classes, you have study hall, you have practices, you have lifts in the morning, you have so much going on and none of the time is really truly yours, so I think that’s been kind of a nice adjustment that I’ve made playing overseas.

Flo: In the beginning, did you find that it was hard to fill that time?

For sure. I didn’t know what to do. I watched a ton of Netflix. Now I’m finally starting to figure out things that I can do in the meantime. I still watch Netflix, don’t get me wrong, but I’m starting to write things maybe for a blog in the future. I love cooking, I love baking, so I’ve found different hobbies that I enjoy doing to fill that time a little better.

Flo: What was the transition going from Scandicci to Novara like?

In Florence, everyone moves a little bit slower. Life is a little bit more old school. In Novara, people are a little more modern, more with the times. Things don’t move quite as slow, so I would equate it a little bit more to America than it was in Florence.

Volleyball-wise, Massimo Barbolini, our coach, he’s amazing. He’s one of the best coaches in the world so I’m blessed to have been able to work with him this year. 

Scandicci last year, I would say we were considered the underdogs and we kind of fought our way up to the top of the league standings, and with Novara, you’re expected to win and be competing for different cup championships, the Scudetto, the finals, so different pressure, definitely, and it’s been really fun embracing that.

Flo: Have you been able to learn any Italian in your two years there?

It’s gotten better for sure. Everything volleyball is no problem. I’ve got that down. It’s when people go off script when you’re having normal conversation. It’s like, “OK, you’re going to have to speak a little slower and try not to go off script, thanks.” But I can for sure get by better than I did last year. 

Flo: What has your experience in Champions League been like?

Well first off, playing once a week for Italian league, that gets boring. You’re waiting, waiting, waiting all week for one match. With Champions League, it just adds a whole other layer of competition, of preparedness, of recovery, so it challenges you as an athlete to be able to refocus and recover at a different level, which when you’re playing with the USA team in the summer, you have to be ready to do that. 

Flo: What has been your team’s best showing in Champions League? 

I think in pool play, we played our best, cleanest volleyball. We didn’t drop a single set until we played Stuttgart in the quarterfinals.

But our most fun game for sure was Vakif. Home and away. Both games were just so competitive. They won Champions League last year, and it was a blast to be in Istanbul and be able to go into their gym and compete like we did. That was a crazy night. That was an incredible experience I won’t forget. 

Flo: What did you guys do to beat them?

Honestly, we didn’t even know that no one had beaten them in that gym in that manner, I don’t think ever. We went into the match knowing Vakif is one of, if not the, best team in the world right now. We have to be really clean and be extra prepared for them. 

I think what really helped us win that match was just our mindfulness and our preparedness. We were really clean, we had really great block-defense, and we stayed focused. Sometimes we tend to start off a little slow, or if we’re up 2-0 then we kind of let off the gas a little bit, but with Vakif we knew we couldn't do that and we held our own. 

Flo: In the golden set, Vakif had match point 14-12 and you guys came back and won four points in a row. How did you manage to pull that off? 

It’s kind of been like the M.O. of our last month, I swear. We’ve gone to five a ton. We’ve played so many golden sets, fifth sets, whatever it is, and we’ve always managed to pull it out. I think it was 14-12 or 14-11 after we let a freeball drop. It was like a huge bummer of a play, but we managed to reset and rip off a couple points and play really, really clean volleyball after that. 

It’s really fun with this team because when our backs are against the wall, I feel like that’s when we’re playing our best volleyball. We just stand up taller and we say, OK, bring it, like let’s go. We’re going to win this match.

Flo: You guys have played Imoco a lot, in the Italian league, in Super Cup, Italian Cup—give us the rundown on the team.

They run a really fast, really challenging offense and when they get on a roll it’s hard to stop them. As a game plan going into it, it’s OK, how are we going to slow down their offense? How are we going to keep them off balance to keep them from running that speed that is so deadly? 

Minimum four times we play them, maximum six times, within the next two or three weeks. A big part of it is going to being mentally ready and not falling into the lull of, “ugh, we’re playing them for the fourth time.” Just coming in with a clear mindset and being ready to compete right out of the gates.

Flo: Who are the key players on their side of the net? 

Who isn’t a key player, honestly? I’d say obviously Kim Hill. She always starts and plays well for them. She’s one of their solid passers and main point-scorers. Their setter Joanna Wolosz, she is absolutely incredible. I’ve never seen anyone run an offense like her. She’s so athletic. She hides it super well—she’s super neutral when she sets, so it’s hard to defend against her. And then, Samanta Fabris, she has really good matches against us on the right side.

Flo: What about on your side of the net?

Michelle Bartsch, she always plays well for us. She’s our six-rotation outside and takes the majority of our passing balls, so she shoulders a really heavy load for us and does an amazing job doing it. Everyone knows Paola Egonu, she’s one of the best players in the world right now. Just really heavy arm on the opposite. Scores a lot of points for us and once she has a good game, we tend to win those matches.

Flo: If you were talking to a friend or a fan back home, what would you tell them to watch for in these upcoming matches?

I think it’s just going to be how the game plans evolve as these matchups go on. Depending on who is having really standout matches against the other team, they’re going to tend to get more balls in the next match. Or if a certain play, say like a super 7 red, if the 7 is really, really working, we’re going to pump the 7 and we’re going to really work them in the middle. 

And honestly just how competitive and fiery both teams are. We love playing each other.

Flo: How important do you think season has been for your readiness with Team USA this summer? 

Going into last year’s Team USA summer, I was not confident. I was not in a good place. I didn’t feel prepared to be able to compete at a high level and earn the right to travel with Team USA last summer. I just wasn’t in a good place.

This summer, I feel like I’m in a completely different place now. I feel confident. I have a positive mindset. I feel like I have gotten better and improved as the season has gone on and so much of that has to do with, one, the competitiveness of our team, both in practice and matches, and with the coaching. Massimo has made a huge difference for me this past year, so I think just confidence is the biggest thing for me. I’m mentally prepared to be able to go in there and fight my butt off to earn a spot to travel with Team USA. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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