When Karch Kiraly announced his 25-player roster for the 2019 Volleyball Nations League, three names—Jordan Thompson, Mary Lake, and Dana Rettke—stood out from the other, more familiar players on the list, for one very notable reason: the trio has not yet completed their college eligibility.
And not only did they make the 25-player VNL roster while still in the midst of their college careers, but these three student-athletes have been included on travel rosters and have seen significant playing time in the tournament so far.
Thompson has traveled with the team for all five weeks of preliminary play, and with 81 total points (67 kills, nine blocks, five aces), the 22-year-old ranks third on the team in scoring. She’s started in four matches, but came in off the bench in four more, often making major match-altering contributions.
Lake played in eight matches over the first four weeks of VNL, even earning the starting libero spot in all three matches in Week 4 with Megan Courtney out of commission due to some health issues; however, Lake was not included in the Week 5 travel roster.
Rettke also made major contributions in Weeks 1 through 3, starting in six matches and collecting 71 points, good for sixth on the team, before leaving the national team to join her Wisconsin team in Vienna for the second half of its summer European tour.
Jordan Thompson lived up to the hype during the opening week of VNL, playing a key role in the USA's undefeated week. pic.twitter.com/bnD3aZ9xth— FloVolleyball (@FloVolleyball) May 25, 2019
FloVolleyball spoke with Thompson, Lake, and Rettke’s college coaches, who have been closely watching the VNL matches throughout the summer, bursting with pride as their star players have made their national team debuts. BYU head coach Heather Olmstead even made the trek from Provo to Lincoln, Nebraska, to see Lake play in person during Week 3.
“I’m so proud of her,” Olmstead said from the stands of the Pinnacle Bank Arena. “[I’m] just excited for her to get the coaching, get the competition that she’s getting here in the VNL tournament, and I think it’s great for her growth and development.”
Wisconsin head coach Kelly Sheffield, reached via phone from Prague, marveled at the opportunity Rettke has to travel and play with the senior national team before even finishing up her collegiate career.
“It’s a dream come true for so many people when they put on the jersey to represent their country at like the youth national team or the junior national team,” Sheffield said. “Those are amazing things, but I think when you’re representing the senior national team, obviously that’s next level stuff. You’re pretty proud of your players that are able to fulfill some of those dreams and [for Dana] to be able to do it at her age is certainly pretty cool.”
None of the college coaches expressed any surprise that their players had made such a strong impression on the national team staff and earned a spot on the VNL roster.
“I had no question with her,” UC head coach Molly Alvey said of Thompson. “Just her size and athleticism. She still had a long way to go when we were recruiting her, and once she got here, just body-frame wise and kind of growing into her body and things like that, but no doubt, I saw this as a future for her.”
Alvey describes Thompson as a “late bloomer,” and perhaps that’s why the 6-4 high flyer ended up at Cincinnati instead of the colleges we're used to seeing on the bios of our national teamers. You know, Nebraska, Stanford, Texas, etc.
Dana Rettke examines the USA's performance against Brazil and explains what it means to her to be a part of this team. pic.twitter.com/ZY7frIZK7D— FloVolleyball (@FloVolleyball) June 8, 2019
But almost as soon as she arrived on campus, Thompson started making waves on her team, in the conference, and across the country. Her freshman year, the American Athletic Conference named her its Freshman of the Year and a unanimous selection to the All-Conference First Team. In 2016, her sophomore season, Thompson earned Honorable Mention All-America honors and AAC Player of the Year. After being forced to take a redshirt year in 2017 to recover from elbow surgery, Thompson came back in 2018 better than ever.
She ranked No. 1 in the country in kills (827) and kills per set (6.27). In the process, she set a new UC program record for single-season kills, ranking third in NCAA history. She also broke the NCAA record for kills per set in the 25-point rally scoring era and added to her already very crowded personal trophy case a Third Team All-America honor and another AAC Player of the Year award.
“[Jordan] doesn’t even realize how good she is and how good she can be,” Alvey said. “That’s sometimes a good thing with coaches when you have a player that’s like that, there’s this sense of urgency to feel like you have to keep working, you have to get better, and you have to keep going because you don’t really feel like you’re there yet, and Jordan has those things.”
In response to her stellar performances in the VNL, the volleyball rumor mill has been churning, suggesting that perhaps Thompson will or should transfer to a Power Five school for her final season of eligibility, or just skip her senior season all together and go pro. But Alvey said she’s confident Thompson will be back on campus come August, and Thompson is a shining example of what can be achieved, even at a mid-major program.
“I hope that [Jordan playing with Team USA] sheds a positive light on what Jordan is able to accomplish, choosing Cincinnati and knowing that this was where she wanted her college career to happen, that you can reach any goal that you want, choosing the school that you want to be at,” Alvery said.
For her part, Thompson is just trying to take the experience one day at a time and make sure to be grateful and not rush through it.
“This summer has been a whirlwind,” she said in Lincoln during Week 3. “It’s been really exciting and I try to just take a lot of moments to just take it in and just really be present because it’s a lot but it’s been my dream to be here, so I just feel really blessed.”
Rettke, simply by nature of her height (6-foot-8), caught the eye of many college coaches early on and since she arrived at Wisconsin, she’s lived up to the hype. She finished her sophomore season last December with the second-best hitting percentage in the country (.423) and ranked sixth in blocks per set (1.54).
“I’ve never been around a player that has improved as quickly as what [Dana] has since she started playing the game,” Sheffield said of his middle blocker. “It’s quite remarkable how steep her climb has been, and at any step she hasn’t blinked. We kind of talked going into her freshman year here that she was going to redshirt that year, and there she is national freshman of the year, our go-to player for the course of the year, and that didn’t phase her at all.”
Playing for the senior national time in top-level international competition, apparently that’s no sweat either for the 2017 AVCA National Freshman of the year and two-time First Team All-American.
“I’ve chatted with her quite a bit,” Sheffield said. “She’s having the time of her life. She said it hasn’t been overwhelming whatsoever.”
“This opportunity has been just so awesome,” Rettke confirmed in a post-match interview in Lincoln on July 6. “I’m so blessed for it. Playing the top competition in the world, as a competitor, you can’t ask for anything better.”
With the women’s national team clearly trying to figure out who will become the starting libero for the leadup to the Tokyo Olympics next year, Lake is in a particularly interesting and unique position, and Olmstead said she’s testing the waters.
“It’s something she’s always thought about, playing on the national team and playing professional, so I think it’s something that she’s investigating to see if it’s something she wants to do further in her career,” Olmstead said.
At just 20 years old and 5-foot-7, Lake is the youngest and the smallest player on the USA VNL roster. But make no mistake, she’s not intimidated in the least.
A starting libero at BYU since her freshman year, Lake earned All-West Coast Conference Freshman Team honors in 2016. As a sophomore, her star rose a little higher and the WCC named her First Team All-Conference and Defender of the Year. She even earned AVCA Honorable Mention All-America honors. Last fall, as a junior, she once again earned WCC Defensive Player of the Year and First Team All-WCC and was named Second Team All-America.
With her as the starting libero, BYU finished the 2018 season ranked No. 1 in the country in opponent hitting percentage and advanced all the way to the national semifinals.
“[Mary’s] got a lot of energy, she’s a fun kid and she’s a hard worker, and she’s a good passer and a good defender,” Olmstead said. “So I think she has the ability to keep getting better with her angles and be stable in the back row for them. If she keeps getting better and I think playing at this level and this speed, she’s going to get better.”
All three college coaches expressed how excited they were for their player to have this experience and to build confidence by playing against some of the best teams and players in the world.
“We can teach a lot in our gym, but to give players experience, the only thing you can do is play to get that experience,” Alvey said. “The experience that Jordan’s getting is invaluable and something that is difficult to teach as a coach. I think that’s good for her, not only this season, but when she graduates in December it puts her in a pretty good spot for her next stage in life.”
If you enjoyed watching Thompson, Rettke, and Lake play for Team USA this summer, just think about how cool it’s going to see them dominate in the college game next fall. Then, next summer, there’s the Olympics, and it doesn’t seem like a stretch at all to say that each of these three extraordinary athletes has a chance to make the roster for Tokyo.