If I Were Karch Kiraly, This Would Be My Final Six Roster

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In the next week or so, USA head coach Karch Kiraly faces the difficult task of determining which 14 players from what is perhaps the world’s deepest pool of talent to bring with him to Nanjing, China, for the Volleyball Nations League Final Round, where the USA will seek to defend its 2018 title.

For the five weeks of preliminary competition, Kiraly utilized the talents of all but three of the women he named to the 25-player VNL roster. (Those three who have not yet made a travel roster are Rachael Adams, Kim Hill, and Danielle Cuttino.) The last two weeks of pool play, however, Kiraly stuck with almost the exact same roster, the only change a swap of libero Mary Lake for outside hitter Mikaela Foecke ahead of Week 5 (which was not really by choice but because Lake lost her passport somewhere between China and Russia and couldn’t get into Russia). 

It seems likely that Kiraly will stick with something close to this group, but of course it’s hard to know. If I were Kiraly, here’s who I would bring:

Outsides

Michelle Bartsch-Hackley 

She’s the reigning VNL MVP and in just two weeks of travel time made four starts (including one at libero) and collected 57 points. Consistent and powerful, Bartsch is one we’re gonna need against the full-strength rosters of the other Final Six teams.

Jordan Larson

Kind of like you can’t not bring the reigning MVP, you can’t not bring your team captain. With so much young talent getting opportunities in the early rounds, Jordan Larson didn’t have to shoulder as heavy of a load as she normally does, but in the three weeks she traveled with the team, she made great contributions on the offensive and defensive side and in keeping this young group of athletes in check and on task.

Kim Hill

She hasn’t traveled at all with the team so far in VNL, but Kim Hill is still one of the USA’s top outside hitters. She ranked third on the team at last year’s VNL in total points and second at World Champs. She is also coming off of a fantastic professional season with Imoco, helping her squad win the Italian league and finish runner-up in Champions League.

Mikaela Foecke

Former Husker Mikaela Foecke has my vote for the last outside hitter spot. She traveled in three of the four weeks of preliminary action and ranks sixth on the team with 71 total points. I especially like her ability to come in off the bench and make an impact, like she did against Brazil in Week 3, scoring eight points despite playing in just the third and fourth sets. Also, when Kiraly needed to make that last-minute roster change ahead of Week 5 because of Lake’s passport woes, Foecke was the player he called up, which shows quite a bit of confidence in her abilities.

Middles

Chiaka Ogbogu

Former Longhorn Chiaka Ogbogu has been an absolute star in VNL. She’s traveled with the team every week and earned playing time in all but four of the USA’s matches. With 125 total points, she ranks second on the team and sits first in blocks (23) and aces (13). This is Ogbogu’s second season training with the national team, but her first traveling with the top squad. 

Haleigh Washington

Haleigh Washington missed just one week of preliminary play and has collected 22 blocks in seven matches, almost matching Ogbogu’s defensive production despite appearing in four fewer matches. Another thing I love about Washington is that she seems to have no problem building connections with setters. She looked great hitting off of Micha Hancock, Carli Lloyd, and Lauren Carlini. (She hasn’t played a match in VNL with the fourth USA setter Jordyn Poulter.) 

Lauren Gibbemeyer

Lauren Gibbemeyer lead the USA in blocks during last year’s VNL preliminary round, but Kiraly has only used her sparingly in the three weeks she traveled with the team during the 2019 pool play portion. This former Minnesota Gopher made her national team debut in a major tournament in 2013, so she brings a veteran element to this otherwise youthful middle group and her professional resume includes stints with some of the top professional teams in the world.

Dana Rettke

Rettke didn’t play for USA in Weeks 4 and 5, but I think it’s likely that was a pre-planned arrangement so she could meet up with her Wisconsin squad for the second half of its European tour. Playing in just six matches, she ranks tied for sixth on the team in total points with 71. Her height provides an obvious boost to USA, but that’s not all she brings to the table. Especially in USA’s loss to Brazil in Week 3, she showcased her ability to put a team on her back and help instigate a comeback, even if she is the second youngest on the roster.

Opposites

Annie Drews

Annie Drews has been the go-to player all tournament long. She’s appeared in 11 matches and leads the team with 158 points. Although not always the most consistent player on the floor, when she’s on, she can be pretty unstoppable. And of course, it’s always great to have a tall lefty on the right.

Jordan Thompson

Of all the rookies to join the USA squad this summer, I’ve been the most impressed with Jordan Thompson (although I am frustrated with the fact that there are now THREE Jordans on the roster, which makes things super confusing). Thompson seems totally unfazed by the speed and pressure of the international game. She’s traveled with the team for all five weeks and ranks fourth with 81 total points. 

Setters

Lauren Carlini

Lauren Carlini had a great professional season with Novara in the Italian league and it shows. She’s impressed me the most of any of the four setters who have earned playing time in VNL. She’s athletic, precise, and an offensive and defensive threat at the net. Against China, arguably USA’s best showing with a close-to-full-strength roster playing against a full-strength opponent, Carlini quarterbacked the team to a .465 hitting efficiency. 

Micha Hancock

The Carli Lloyd fans out there are not going to like this pick, but I really appreciate what Micha Hancock brings to the table. She did a great job setting in the four matches she played in during the preliminary rounds, and since she hasn’t played since Week 2, she’ll enter the Final Six plenty rested. In addition to good setting, Hancock supplies aggressive serving, lefty attacking magic in the front row, and solid leadership. Oh, and she just signed with Igor Gorgonzola Novara for next year’s pro season, so her star is only going to continue to rise.

(This would be my pick, but I just want to put it out there that I fully expect Kiraly to go with Carlini and Lloyd for the Final Six.)  

Liberos

Kelsey Robinson

Kelsey Robinson only played one match in the preliminary rounds at the libero position (the Week 5 sweep of Russia), but her serve receive has been solid all tournament and of course she spent all of last summer in the libero jersey. Bonus, if you bring Robinson as one of the liberos, you have another outside hitter able to step in if needed. With 90 points in the prelim rounds, third-most on the team, she proved that she’s also still perfectly capable of contributing as a hitter.

Megan Courtney

Hopefully whatever has been ailing Courtney the last few weeks will be all cleared up by the time the Final Round begins in Nanjing on July 3. Of any of the liberos, or outsides-turned-liberos, on the roster, Courtney’s had the most reps at the position this year and her return would be a major boost for the team.

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