21 Under 21: The Rising Stars Of Women's VNL

Robinson: Newcomers A 'Breath Of Fresh Air'

Many women’s teams competing in Volleyball Nations League have added to the depth of their rosters with young talent. Some coaches turned to these youthful players early in the tournament out of necessity, filling in for more veteran players who are taking a few weeks off after finishing their professional seasons. 

Other coaches have seized the opportunity to get the youngsters in their programs experience against elite competition, all the while saving their older players’ strength for later on in the long, grueling tournament that is VNL. 

Whatever the reason, it’s been a blast to see all the incredible young talent that exists in the world of women’s volleyball.

Here’s our 21 under 21 list (in alphabetical order) of the top athletes competing in Nations League who can’t even buy a beer yet in the United States.

Nika Daalderop, 20, Netherlands

With a spike touch of 317 centimeters (approx. 10-5), 20-year-old Nika Daalderop ranks second only to international superstar Lonneke Sloetjes on the Netherlands squad. The 6-foot-3 outside hitter has put that high reach to work for the Netherlands already at VNL, ranking fifth on the team with 43 total points (38 kills, four blocks, one ace).

Those four blocks all came in one match, Netherlands five-set loss to Brazil. Despite playing just two sets in the match, Daalderop also added 12 kills to the effort.

Daalderop played for Il Bisonte Firenze Volley in the most recent professional season, helping her team finish seventh in the regular season of the Italian league and advance to playoffs. 

Paola Egonu, 20, Italy

If you follow international women’s volleyball at all, you’ve heard the name Paola Egonu, and chances are you’re going to keep hearing it for years to come. 

Still only 20 years old, Egonu led Italy to a silver medal at the 2018 World Championships, setting a new single-match scoring record with 45 points in the semifinal versus China and a new all-time top scoring record with 324 points in the competition.

Egonu did not travel with the Italian team for the first week of competition at the 2019 VNL, but she reunited with the team for Week 2, collecting eight points as a sub in the match with Dominican Republic, then sitting out the USA match, before coming back on fire and tallying 32 points in a four-set win over Serbia and tying the VNL record for aces in a match with seven.

Sarah Luisa Fahr, 17, Italy

At just 17, Sarah Luisa Fahr is the youngest player on Italy’s 2019 VNL roster. She traveled with the silver-medal-winning Italian squad to the World Championships last fall, but saw little playing time. In contrast, so far at this year’s VNL, the 6-foot-4 middle blocker has made a sizable impact, starting in all three of Italy’s Week 1 matches and amassing 29 total points.

Yokaty Perez Flores, 20, Dominican Republic

Twenty-year-old Yokaty Perez Flores has the good and bad luck to be playing back-up to decorated Dominican Republic setter Niverka Marte, so she doesn’t get the chance to start, but she has come in as a sub for at least a point in every single match so far this VNL. 

The 5-10 setter led the Dominican Republic squad to a fourth-place finish at the U23 World Championships in 2017.

Bojana Gocanin, 16, Serbia

Teenage defensive dynamo Bojana Gocanin has already had a few chances to get into the action for Serbia at VNL. The youngest player on Serbia’s roster filled in for starting libero Teodora Pusic for a significant portion of the matches versus USA and Italy.

Zehra Gunes, 19, Turkey

Zehra Gunes has always been ahead of the curve. The 6-4 middle blocker earned the Best Middle Blocker award at the 2015 FIVB U18 World Championship at the age of 16. She claimed the same title at the 2017 U20 World Championship and led her team to a gold medal at the 2017 U23 World Championships. 

She joined the senior national team last summer, scoring ample playing time at the 2018 VNL and World Championships tournaments. As a member of VakifBank Istanbul, Gunes has won back-to-back Turkish league championships.

So far at the current edition of VNL, Gunes ranks third on the team with 64 points, including 17 blocks and 11 aces. 

Britt Herbots, 19, Belgium

Outside hitter Britt Herbots joined the senior Belgium national team, known as the Yellow Tigers, three years ago when she was just 16. 

So far in 2019 VNL, she’s led Belgium to its first back-to-back victories in the tournament (3-2 over Bulgaria and 3-1 over Japan in Week 1) and a third win against Thailand in Week 2. Standing just under 6-feet tall, the 19-year-old ranks No. 1 on the team with 90 points (79 kills, five blocks, six aces), good for seventh among all players.

Professionally, Herbots plays for Busto Arsizio in the Italian league.

Ebrar Karakurt, 19, Turkey

Karakurt, one of two players named Best Outside Hitter at the 2017 FIVB U18 World Championship, made her senior national team debut at last year’s VNL, where she helped Turkey finish fifth. 

The 6-4 outside has collected 74 points for Turkey so far at the 2019 VNL (60 kills, seven blocks, and seven aces), good for second on the team and only trailing the team leader by one point.

Like Gunes, Ebrar Karakurt plays professionally for VakifBank Istanbul. Karakurt was also a member of the VakifBank youth club before being promoted to the senior team. 

Pia Kastner, 20, Germany

Twenty-year-old Pia Kastner has earned the starting setter nod this year after spending the pro season with Alliant MTV Stuttgart, playing alongside Americans Sarah Wilhite Parsons, Madi Bugg, Krystal Rivers, Paige Tapp, and Molly McCage, and helping the team win the 2019 Bundesliga title. 

After playing only sparingly in 2018, Kastner played in all three of Week 1’s matches, including starting in the match versus Poland. She currently ranks as Germany’s top setter on the stats sheet with 46 running sets, but she did not travel in Week 2.

Ai Kurogo, 20, Japan

Ai Kurogo joined the Japan senior national team last summer, competing in VNL and World Championships. She even ranked second on the team in total points at World Championships.

Kurogo did not travel with the Japan team for Week 1 of 2019 VNL, but the 6-1 outside hitter played in every match in Week 2 and currently ranks fourth on the team with 42 total points. 

Katarina Lazovic, 19, Serbia

Long a fixture on Serbia’s age-group rosters, outside hitter Katarina Lazovic made the rosters for VNL and World Championships last year, but didn’t see much action.

2019 appears to be her year, however, as the 19-year-old has impressed so far in the current edition of VNL, ranking third on Serbia’s roster with 49 total points (37 kills, four blocks, and six aces), even though she did not travel with the team for Week 1’s matches. Against Italy, Lazovic led Serbia with 16 points, second only to Italy’s Paola Egonu. 

Juah Lee, 18, Korea

Teenage middle blocker Juah Lee has started every match for Korea so far at the 2019 VNL and she ranked fourth on the team in total points.

As a middle, scoring points in blocks and kills is expected, but Lee has proven herself to be multifaceted, tallying a team-high nine aces at VNL. Her 0.45 aces per set rank fifth among all players at VNL.

Li Yingying, 19, China

Six-foot-four lefty outside Li Yingying fits in perfectly with the physical Chinese team. She didn’t travel with the team for Week 1, but then started in two matches during Week 2, helping China score dominant sweeps over Thailand and Belgium. She led the team with 15 points versus Belgium and ranks seventh on the team overall with 30 total points.

Just last month, Yingying finished the Montreux Volley Masters tournament as the No. 3 scorer, trailing only Poland’s Malwina Smarzek and Germany’s Louisa Lippman. 

Last year, Yingying is rumored to have rejected an offer from Fenerbahce Istanbul, one of the top teams in the Turkish league, in order to stay home and play professionally in China. She is currently on the roster of Tianjin, which finished runner-up in this year’s Chinese league playoffs.

Polina Matveeva, 16, Russia

One of four setters on Russia’s 25-player VNL roster, Polina Matveeva has come in as a sub in five of six matches so far at VNL and earned the starting spot in one.

With 16 running sets, she ranks second only to 24-year-old Tatiana Romanova on the Russia roster. 

Matveeva is fairly new to the senior national team ranks, but she’s been a key player for Russia’s age-group teams, even earning Best Setter honors at the 2018 European U17 Championships, where Russia won gold, and 2018 European U20 CHampionships, where her team took home a silver medal.

Chatchu-On Moksri, 19, Thailand

One of Thailand’s up-and-coming players, Chatchu-On Moksri plays professionally this past season for PFU BlueCats in Japan’s V Premier League. 

She may be one of the youngest players on Thailand’s roster and only 5-foot-10, but Moksri is talented beyond her years and currently ranks as the team’s No. 2 scorer in VNL with 71 total points. 

Hanna Orthmann, 20, Germany

Hanna Orthmann has contributed 42 points to the German cause so far at VNL, trailing only superstar Louisa Lippman. The young outside hitter is deadly from the front or back row and hits at a very high contact point. 

Orthmann made her Bundesliga (Germany’s top professional league) debut in 2016 at the age of 28, and that same year played with the German senior national team for the first time. In 2017, the 6-2 all-around player caught the eye of Italian league team ProVictoria Pallavolo Monza, where she remains on the roster, alongside Americans Rachael Adams and Micha Hancock. 

Elena Pietrini, 19, Italy

Elena Pietrini got called up to the Italian senior national team for the first time at last year’s VNL. Previously in her career, she starred at the 2017 U18 World Championships, leading Italy to a gold medal and earning MVP honors.

So far at this year’s VNL, she’s second on the team with 98 points, including eight aces. 

Dana Rettke, 20, USA

At 6-8, Dana Rettke stands out, even at the highest levels of volleyball. The current University of Wisconsin middle is making her senior national team debut this summer and generating quite a bit of buzz. She’s earned the starting nod in four of six games so far at VNL, ranking third on the roster in overall points (47) and second in blocks per set (0.46). She even has seven digs to her name.

Not bad for the youngest player on the team. 

Tainara Lemes Santos, 19, Brazil

Six-foot-three outside hitter Tainara Lemes Santos enters her first season with the senior national team having garnered some recognition at the national and continental levels, including being named MVP at the 2016 Youth South American Championship and Best Outside Spike at the 2018 Junior South Ameircan Championship. 

Tainara has played in five of six matches at VNL, starting one of those matches. She’s made the most of her time on the court, doing her best to impress the Brazil coaching staff and collecting 30 total points, good for sixth on the team.

Magdalena Stysiak, 18, Poland

Magdalena Stysiak, at 6-foot-7 is the tallest player on Poland’s roster. She also happens to be the youngest player on the team. She’s starred on the Polish junior ranks since she was 16 and just celebrated a silver medal in the Polish league with her professional team Grot Budowlani Lodz. 

Stysiak has used her spike touch of 10-foot-5 to collect 41 points (30 kills, eight blocks, three aces) and help Poland achieve a 5-1 start to 2019 VNL. 

Eline Timmerman, 20, Netherlands

She’s only 20 years old, but Eline Timmerman has been absolutely critical for the Netherlands in its performance at VNL so far in 2019. The 6-3 middle has started in all six matches and ranks first on the team with 18 blocks and fourth in total points with 53. 

Watch each of these talented young stars LIVE on FloVolleyball during the 2019 FIVB Volleyball Nations League.

* All statistics accurate as of June 3, 2019

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