In the final week of Volleyball Nations League preliminary play, the U.S. women’s national team collected three victories.
With the first, a sweep of Russia, Team USA secured its spot in the VNL Final Six. Then, the second, a five-set battle with the Netherlands, saw head coach Karch Kiraly do some experimenting with his lineup.
The third outing of the week, the final match of the preliminary round for the USA, ended in another sweep for the Americans, this time over Thailand, giving the U.S. three valuable points toward a better seed in the Final Six.
Insane mega rally! Thailand 🇹🇭 reacted and the game is absolutely amazing right now! Check this Haleigh Washington contribution for USA 🇺🇸.— Volleyball World (@FIVBVolleyball) June 20, 2019
Join now! 👉 https://t.co/KO2zm2ahyq#BePartOfTheGame #Volleyball #VNL #VNLWomen #InGame @thaivolley_tva @usavolleyball pic.twitter.com/ZY3LpppOI0
A trend in all of this week’s matches was experimentation at the libero position. After using either Megan Courtney or Mary Lake as the starting libero in every match over the first four weeks of VNL, Kiraly used a different libero in each of the Week 5 matches.
Against Russia, outside hitter Kelsey Robinson put on the libero jersey for the first time since last summer, when she spent the majority of the season playing the position for USA. The former Nebraska Husker collected a team-high 14 digs and boasted a 75 percent positive reception in the three-set match.
“I think this was one of our best passing matches of the 13 VNL matches. It was a well-managed effort,” Kiraly said.
Michelle Bartsch-Hackley donned the libero jersey against the Netherlands, her first time ever playing the position in an international match. Her 43 percent positive reception was perhaps not what you would typically hope for from a libero, but she added 11 digs and helped the team stave off two match points to defeat a full-strength Netherlands squad that had nothing to lose after already missing out on an opportunity to advance to the Final Six.
For the Thailand match, Kirlay tapped Mikaela Foecke for the libero gig, and she recorded a 32 percent positive reception on 25 passes. Foecke was added to the roster last minute ahead of Week 5’s matches, perhaps for this specific reason, that Kiraly knew he would need some additional depth at the libero/outside hitter position.
Lake was not included in the Week 4 or 5 travel roster and Courtney hasn’t played since Week 3 in Lincoln, with USA Volleyball citing “health issues” as the reason; however, she has remained on the roster and traveling with the team. If Courtney recovers, expect her to reclaim the libero jersey, if not, our best guess would be that Kelsey Robinson will play the position throughout the Final Six.
At the end of the preliminary round, Annie Drews remains the USA’s top scorer, with 158 total points. Chiaka Ogbogu, with 125 points, ranks second in just her first season traveling with the top USA team. The former University of Texas middle has collected an impressive 23 blocks in her 11 match appearances and is the team’s top server with 13 aces.
Joining USA in the Final Six will be host China, which finished the preliminary rounds in first place with a 12-3 record, 35 points, and a sets ratio of 3.083. The USA earned the No. 2 seed with the identical 12-3 record and 35 points, however, with a sets ratio of 2.294.
Brazil, Italy, Turkey, and Poland round out the finalists, with Poland beating out Japan, Dominican Republic, and Belgium, who were all battling in Week 5 to earn the final slot.
The teams now get a week and a half off before the Final Six begins in Nanjing, China, on July 3. All Final Six matches will stream live right here on FloVolleyball.