The U.S. women’s national team certainly didn’t take the easy road to a repeat Volleyball Nations League gold medal.
In Sunday’s championship match, late runs in sets one and two gave Brazil a 2-0 lead heading into the third, but a gutsy, three-set comeback saw the USA claim victory in five 20-25, 22-25, 25-15, 25-21, 15-13.
USA head coach Karch Kiraly kicked off the match with the exact same group of starters he used in the semifinal versus China on Saturday—Annie Drews, Kelsey Robinson, Haleigh Washington, Lauren Carlini, Michelle Bartsch-Hackley, Chiaka Ogbogu, and Megan Courtney at libero. But toward the end of both sets one and two, Kiraly sent captain Jordan Larson in for Bartsch-Hackley. Brazil was targeting MBH, the 2018 VNL MVP, on serve receive, but with Larson in, the USA boasts one of the most solid serve receive trios in the world in Robinson, Larson, and Courtney.
Facing a 0-2 deficit ahead of the third set, Kiraly decided to go with Larson permanently, in addition to replacing Ogbogu with Tori Dixon. He also stopped using the double substitution of Jordyn Poulter and Jordan Thompson that he had utilized in the first two sets.
In all five sets, however, Drews ranked as the team’s top scorer or tied for the top scorer designation, and she finished the match with 33 points, just the second U.S. player to surpass 30 points in a VNL match.
“Wow, Annie,” Kiraly said. “I don’t know how many points she had, but she was huge.”
So huge the FIVB designated her the MVP of the tournament. Washington, as one of two Best Middle Blockers, and Courtney, as Best Libero, joined Drews on the VNL Dream Team.
2019 #VNLWomen MVP: Annie Drews 🇺🇸.— Volleyball World (@FIVBVolleyball) July 7, 2019
Her numbers in the Final Round: 33 pts vs Brazil 🇧🇷 in the final, 21 vs China 🇨🇳 in the semi-final, 23 vs Poland 🇵🇱! She is the #1 spiker of the 2019 #VNL & also one of the top scorers! #BePartOfTheGame #volleyball @usavolleyball pic.twitter.com/rvys9CzNd5
Gabi Guimarães and Lorenne Teixeira finished the match tied for a team-high 20 points each for Brazil. Gabi, who ranked third among all scorers in the VNL with 278 points, was also selected to the Dream Team as one of two Best Outside Hitters.
In the final, Brazil suffered greatly from the exit of captain and starting Natalia Pereira toward the end of the second set. Natalia, who is just returning to form after dealing with a knee injury, was coming in to approach when she appeared to injury her lower leg. First Brazilian head coach Ze Roberto tried replacing his captain with Amanda Francisco, then later switched out Amanda with Tainara Santos, who usually plays opposite, but both replacements were targets for the USA on serve receive and couldn’t get much going on offense.
The match ended rather bizarrely. After the USA achieved match point at 14-11 in the fifth set, Brazil used the last of its energy to crawl back to 14-13. Then mid-rally, Kiraly called a challenge, alleging that Brazil had touched the net.
The choice was risky, as Brazil would have gotten the point if Kiraly’s mid-rally challenge proved to be unfounded, and that would have evened the score at 14s, but the USA coach was confident, and rightly so.
The replay showed Ana Carol da Silva, a middle subbed in for setter Macris Carneiro to block on the right side for the last two points of the match, getting a little too enthusiastic on her swing block and coming into contact with the antenna. The USA won the challenge, the point, the set, the match, and the championship.
Few words from the team USA 🇺🇸 captain #10 @JordanLarson10! 🎙— Volleyball World (@FIVBVolleyball) July 7, 2019
For more details on #VNLWomen Finals click here 👉 https://t.co/eDyfiEquBK#BePartOfTheGame #volleyball #VNL @usavolleyball pic.twitter.com/nknLkXdj7f
It was yet another good choice from the experienced coach who calmed the team down with smart substitutions between the second and third set and even knew when to utilize serving subs for Drews and Washington in the fourth and fifth sets.
“What a great team win, fall down 2-0 against one of the great teams in the world, Brazil,” Kiraly said. “Jordan Larson came in and gave us a great lift, Tori Dixon also. It was a total team win, 14-person plus here, all the other people in our program including the 14 battling in Peru. Total team effort. So much to be proud of.”