With a pair of four-set victories in Final Round pool play, the U.S. women’s national team moved a step closer to repeating as the Volleyball Nations League champion. And they did it with two almost completely different starting lineups.
On Wednesday versus Poland, opposite Annie Drews led the way with 23 points. Outsides Kelsey Robinson and Michelle Bartsch-Hackley and middle Haleigh Washington also contributed double digit points, with Bartsch-Hackley’s four aces topping the serving column and Washington’s seven blocks leading all players. Middle Chiaka Ogbogu finished the match with nine points (five kills, four blocks).
The USA dropped the first set to Poland, which was playing in its first VNL Final Round, but quickly righted the ship in the second set, utilizing service pressure to throw the Poles off balance. By the time Kelsey Robinson’s kill on match point fell, the USA had collected seven aces to Poland’s two.
“We talked about service pressure,” Drews said about the shift between sets one and two. “If we are going to error, let’s make some aggressive errors. Let’s really push them to be out of system, put their setter on the move or make their non-setters set. I think we did a better job of that as the match went on. We still were pretty high error in service, but I thought we were better at putting pressure on and getting them out of system.”
Poland’s star outside Malwina Smarzek finished with a match-high 23 points on 20 kills and three blocks—a good night for almost anyone else, but not at all out of the ordinary for the player who has topped 30 points 10 times in two years of VNL.
The Americans had the Fourth of July off, but they celebrated Brazil’s defeat of Poland on Thursday, as it guaranteed both Brazil and USA spots in the semifinals, regardless of what happened in Friday’s match between the rivals.
With that in mind, Brazil’s head coach Jose Guimaraes chose to rest a number of his starters for the second Final Round pool play, benching some for the entire match and utilizing other sparingly as subs.
USA head coach Karch Kiraly also chose to play a different group of women than he had in the first Final Round pool play match, although it’s hard to say which lineup you’d call the “A team” and which the “B team.” More realistically, the top lineup for the USA is a combination of the two.
Only setter Lauren Carlini and libero Megan Courtney started both Final Round pool play matches, and 22-year-old Jordan Thompson's 33 points lead the USA to a victory over Brazil. With the performance, Thompson became the first American player to record 30 or more points in a single VNL match.
“She is amazing,” Team USA captain Jordan Larson said of Thompson. “I think a lot people don’t know she is still in college—she still has one more year left. We have been blessed to have her and to get to know her. She is a great human, and obviously a great volleyball player."
Larson and Mikaela Foecke started on the outside for the USA, while Tori Dixon, who tallied a match-high five blocks, and Dana Rettke got the nod in the middle.
Team USA will now take on China in Saturday’s semifinal, with the match scheduled for 6:30 AM CT. China advanced with a 1-1 record in Final Round pool play—losing to Turkey, but beating Italy, which also lost to Turkey. Turkey and Brazil play in the first semifinal at 2 AM CT.
Watch both semifinals live right here on FloVolleyball.tv.