By Sunday, Aug. 4, just under a year from the start of the 2020 Olympics, the U.S. women’s national team could secure its spot in Tokyo.
The first chance for Olympic qualification usually comes from the World Cup the summer before the Olympics. But this year, with the World Cup in Japan, the host country of the upcoming games, the event is ineligible to be a qualifier, so the FIVB created the Tokyo Qualification Tournament for women, Aug. 1-4, and men, Aug. 9-11, taking place in 12 cities around the world.
The Tokyo Women’s Volleyball Qualification Tournament features the top 24 teams in the world, minus 2020 Olympics host Japan, divided into six pools of four teams each. Each pool will be hosted in a different city around the world and will utilize a round-robin format. The top team in each pool at the end of the three-day event earns a spot in Tokyo.
The U.S. women host Pool D in Shreveport-Bossier City, Louisiana, welcoming world No. 11 Argentina, No. 16 Bulgaria, and No. 23 Kazakhstan.
In its all-time series against these three opponents, Team USA has just one loss, to Bulgaria. The U.S. women are 21-0 versus Argentina and 6-0 against Kazakhstan, which USA has not played since 2014. But head coach Karch Kiraly refuses to take his team’s Olympic qualification tournament opponents lightly.
“We are not taking anything for granted, or thinking that any opponent is less of a threat than others,” he said to USA Volleyball. “Instead, we’re focusing all of our efforts into winning the first point of the tournament. Then we’ll reset, and focus on the next point. We are treating each of our three opponents with the utmost respect—Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, and Argentina.”
Already this summer, the U.S. women have won gold medals at the Volleyball Nations League tournament and Pan Am Cup, but once again, Kiraly acknowledged those achievements don’t mean much when it comes to earning a spot in the Olympics.
“Our people notched strong performances in both of those tournaments, winning the gold medal down in Peru at Pan Am Cup and also winning gold at Volleyball Nations League in China,” he said. “But those gold medals mean very little now, with the slate clean and everyone sitting at zero wins and zero losses.”
Kiraly has selected a strong 14-player roster for the trio of matches in Louisiana, including calling up Olympian and national team veteran Kim Hill, who did not play or travel at all during VNL.
Hill took the opportunity to rest and recover after two almost non-stop seasons going from competing with the national team in the summers to her professional team, Imoco Volley of Italy’s Serie A.
“Our job is just really tough because we go from our club season directly into our international team and directly back into our club season,” Hill said. “The coaches, thankfully, let me have a little bit of a breath to be at home to re-center my head, and it was really amazing. It’s made such a huge difference for me, and I feel ready to be back out there and ready to compete with the girls.”
The qualification tournament roster also includes newly crowned 2019 VNL MVP Annie Drews. The opposite led USA with 235 points in the seven-week tournament, settling into her new role as a go-to player.
“When I got back to California from my pro season, I was like ‘Get on that roster.’ That is how deep our gym is. I did not go to World Championship last year as I was not selected for that roster,” Drews said. “You can only limit yourself to so much until you just have to be like ‘I gotta go. Who cares if I’m stepping on toes or if I feel uncomfortable or if I look stupid. It’s now or never.’ That is how I felt.
“I was like get on week one roster. Then week one I was like get to Lincoln, and in Lincoln I’m like let’s make it to Finals.”
Drews made the travel roster for all five preliminary weeks and the Finals, starting in 12 of the team’s 19 VNL matches.
VNL and Pan Am Cup also saw Kiraly utilize the youthful talent available in the U.S., and some of those national team rookies and current college students will appear in red, white, and blue again in Louisiana. That group includes setter Jordyn Poulter, a 2018 grad of the University of Illinois; opposite Jordan Thompson, a current member of the University of Cincinnati team; middle Dana Rettke, a junior at the University of Wisconsin; and Mary Lake, a senior libero for BYU.
The complete roster is below:
U.S. Women's National Team Roster for 2019 FIVB Tokyo Qualification Tournament Pool C
# - Player (Position, Height, College, Hometown)
2 – Jordyn Poulter (S, 6-2, Illinois, Aurora, Colorado)
6 – Tori Dixon (M, 6-3, Minnesota, Burnsville, Minnesota)
7 – Lauren Carlini (S, 6-2, Wisconsin, Aurora, Illinois)
10 – Jordan Larson (OH, 6-2, Nebraska, Hooper, Nebraska)
11 – Annie Drews (OPP, 6-4, Purdue, Elkhart, Indiana)
12 – Jordan Thompson (OPP, 6-4, Cincinnati, Edina, Minnesota)
14 – Michelle Bartsch-Hackley (OH, 6-3, Illinois, Champaign, Illinois)
15 – Kim Hill (OH, 6-4, Pepperdine, Portland, Oregon)
17 – Megan Courtney (L, 6-1, Penn State, Dayton, Ohio)
20 – Dana Rettke (M, 6-8, Wisconsin, Riverside, Illinois)
22 – Haleigh Washington (M, 6-3, Penn State, Colorado Springs, Colorado)
23 – Kelsey Robinson (OH, 6-2, Nebraska, Manhattan Beach, California)
24 – Chiaka Ogbogu (M, 6-2, Texas, Coppell, Texas)
27 – Mary Lake (L, 5-7, BYU, Palm Springs, California)
“We’re obviously extremely deep,” Hill said. “It seems like we can put anyone on the court and they’re going to do a good job. So especially with this tournament where it's three nights in a row—bam … bam … bam—you have to be on for every night. Our depth is going to be a key. You can get tired playing three nights in a row. I’m sure we may rotate people over the three days.
“It’s really fun to see the young girls and how much they’ve stepped into the role and really embraced it and are playing incredible. And then seeing it mixed with the older girls, it’s very exciting not just for the qualifier but also beyond in Tokyo.”
At the conclusion of the Tokyo Qualification Tournament, six teams per gender will have locked in their spots for next year’s Olympics. The remaining five spots per gender will be earned through continental tournaments hosted in January 2020 by each of the five Continental Confederations (Africa, Asia, Europe, North & Central America and Caribbean, South America).