Bergen Reilly, a 2023 Huskers commit and senior at Sioux Falls (S.D) O’Gorman High School, was at school on Thursday, Sept. 1, when her mom received a phone call from Michelle Chatman-Smith, the acting head coach of the USA Volleyball Senior National Team.
Fourteen-and-a-half hours later, Reilly was on a flight to Miami to meet up with Chatman-Smith and Team USA on their way to the Dominican Republic to compete in the Pan American Cup Final Six.
A late illness to one of the two setters on the roster left Chatman-Smith in a bind, with most of the other setters with USA experience tied up elsewhere.
“I found out Wednesday that one player was not going to be able to travel because she had actually contracted COVID,” Chatman-Smith told Hail Varsity. “And so that night, the wheels started turning, like ‘OK, so what are the next steps in trying to fill out the roster?’ And then we went through all the people that we initially had in line in case something like this happened. One person was not able to make the trip, and so then that’s when it was like, ‘OK, well, now I need to throw a Hail Mary,’ and that’s when I made the call to Bergen’s family.”
She had a connection with Reilly after serving as an assistant coach for the junior national teams at the 2022 U19 Pan American Cup and the 2021 U18 World Championship. Reilly started at setter for both of those teams.
“I knew that she’s very mature and would be able to handle this,” Chatman-Smith said. “And the players that we had on the roster were amazing people that I knew would be able to kind of mentor Bergen throughout that process.”
Reilly filled out a bunch of forms, took a COVID-19 test, packed up her things and hopped on a plane. She never considered turning the opportunity down, but leaving in the middle of the school year and high school volleyball season was not easy for her.
“I immediately knew I had to say yes, and I wanted to go, but it definitely was hard,” Reilly told Hail Varsity. “The only thing that gave me a little peace of mind was that I actually didn’t miss any high school games. We just randomly had a two-week break with no games, and so it actually worked out perfectly.”
A high schooler playing for the senior national team is rare considering the various age brackets offered within international competition, but Chatman-Smith wasn’t worried about Reilly being in over her head because of the setter’s experience within the USA Volleyball National Team Development Program.
“It’s not something that we see often in the USA gym, so it was really cool and a testament to the pipeline of USA,’ Chatman-Smith said. “All the NTDP stuff that’s out there and the coaches that are running the NTDP things, we tell the players as we’re going through that process that, ‘Hey, we’re training you just like the women’s national team is trained. We are doing these things because the women’s national team does these things.’ And so it was really cool to be able to know that Bergen was prepared to step into a system that she knew, scouting that she knew, traveling internationally.”
Besides the 17-year-old Reilly, the roster consisted entirely of college graduates who were all born in the late 1990s. Despite not having a chance to practice with the team prior to leaving for the tournament, Reilly said the older women embraced her upon her arrival.
“They were all super great,” Reilly said. “It was obviously a little awkward at the beginning just because they’re all between six and 10 years older than me, but they were all so great to me, took me under their wing. If I needed anything, they were right there for me, just all making sure that I was OK and they knew that I was kind of just thrown into this. They were very appreciative that I was there because if I wasn’t there, then one of the outsides was going to have to set and so they were like, ‘Thank you for coming.’ So they were all great. I was just kind of like their little sister. It was all super smooth.”
The other setter on the roster was Tori Dilfer, who led Dani Busboom Kelly’s Louisville Cardinals to the Final Four last season as a senior. Reilly said Dilfer and the other veterans encouraged her to trust her gut and play her game.
“Setting is kind of all about instinct, but I think Tori gave me a lot of good tips of just like, you’re going to have a game plan every game, but you’re going to have to be willing to change that if certain things are going certain ways,” Reilly said. “I feel like a lot of time I would’ve stuck to the game plan if she hadn’t told me that, like, ‘Oh, I have to set this person.’ So I think it was just kind of good to know, and she also just told me ‘Just go out there and play. You’re a great player, you know what you’re doing.’ And so that was just really helpful to know that they trusted me out there and that I was just coming as a back-up.”
On top of adjusting to new teammates and playing at a higher level, Reilly had to slide back into her natural setter position after playing outside hitter for O’Gorman. Per MaxPreps, she recorded 31 kills on .542 hitting and attempted just three sets in the Knights’ first two matches of the season.
“The first half hour of practice was a little shaky, but I got back into it pretty quickly,” Reilly said. “It’s really easy to set to those hitters when they’re just like, ‘Get it up in this area and I’ll do something with it.’ It’s kind of refreshing to be able to do that instead of needing to set a perfect ball, perfect tempo, perfect spot. This was just kind of like ‘Get me the ball and I can work with it.’ They would give me feedback, but they were also like, ‘You’re doing well, don’t think about it too much.’ And so it really didn’t take too long to get back into it.”
The United States played seven matches in the Dominican Republic with one match every day from Sept. 4 through this past Sunday. Reilly played in 11 sets across five matches with two starts, which is more than she expected to play when she agreed to join the team.
“I didn’t really have time to process anything and so I hadn’t even really thought about how much I was going to play, but I kind of just thought like, ‘Oh, I’ll come in if we’re winning by a lot or if Tori needs a little break, I’ll come in,’” Reilly said. “But I was not expecting to start at all, wasn’t expecting it to be kind of a consistent thing. So that was super cool that I got to play quite a bit.”
She made her senior national team debut in the first match, a 3-0 sweep over Mexico, then two matches later she started in a sweep over Canada. With a 4-0 beginning to the tournament, Reilly started in the final pool match as well, though the Americans fell in three sets to the host country.
“We had a grueling schedule of seven matches in seven days,” Chatman-Smith said. “The goal was to try to keep all players as fresh as possible as we went through the tournament … So it was important for her to get those starts and to be able to carry some of the load from Tori, so that we were fresh, trying to get to the finals.”
The United States already had a spot in the semifinals locked up, however, and the Americans beat Puerto Rico 3-1 to earn a rematch against the Dominican Republic. They didn’t fare any better in round two, however, as the D.R. took gold in a sweep and the U.S. had to settle for silver.
“It was a super cool experience and I think that it was different than all my other USA experiences, not only because it was a higher level but also being in the D.R., everyone loves volleyball there,” Reilly said. “Even the nights that we weren’t playing D.R. there were quite a few fans there and they all just love good volleyball. So I think that was just super cool and obviously when we played D.R. and in the championship, stands were packed. We were yelling at each other when we were one or two steps away from each other because it was so loud that we couldn’t hear anything.
“But it it just made it a great environment to play in and the fact that they just wanted to see good volleyball, they didn’t care — they obviously want the Dominican to win, but if we got a good up they would be cheering too. So I think that was just such a cool environment to play in.”
The composure that Reilly typically plays with, even in a raucous environment like Team USA experienced down in the D.R., is what impresses Chatman-Smith most about Reilly as a setter. She even earned a nickname from her teammates because of it.
“She is super composed,” Chatman-Smith said. “She has this whole a sense of calm around her. The environment in Dominican Republic, especially when we played against Dominican Republic and she started that match, was absolutely insane. It was deafening. They had horns and the crowd was so loud and she stepped on the court and just kind of took care of business with great composure. And so I think her the sense of calm and composure, those are the two things that stood out greatly during the tournament.
“And the the players even started calling her ‘Iceberg’ because she came out against Puerto Rico, serves an ace, gets a couple digs, sets the offense without hesitation and the players were like ‘What in the world? That’s wild.’ And so they’re like ‘Iceberg, came in with ice in your veins.’”
Coach John Cook can’t comment publicly on unsigned recruits, but he did speak generally about what it means for a high schooler to earn a chance to compete with the senior national team.
“It’s kind of a big moment for a developing athlete, so it’s pretty cool,” Cook said. “I’ve seen that happen other times … It’s a pretty good opportunity. A lot of high school kids can’t do it because they’re in school, and they’re playing in their high school season … This is kind of the national B team right now that’s playing in this Pan American Cup, so that’s a pretty special opportunity.”
Reilly’s first experience with the senior national team was a bit of a whirlwind, but after a week in the D.R., she’s back home, back in school and back on the court for O’Gorman. Unfortunately, playing for the United States also meant she had to miss out on a planned trip to her future home as she was originally scheduled to visit Nebraska for the Long Beach State match along with fellow 2023 commit Harper Murray and 2024 commit Skyler Pierce.
“That was one of the bigger things that bummed me out about going to this, but we’re going to plan something else,” Reilly said. “I’m sure I’ll be down for a weekend.”
Reilly will have plenty more opportunities to make it to Lincoln this season, and she’ll likely have plenty more opportunities to represent the United States down the road as well.
“I think that she has an amazing path and she’s going to be trained by some awesome coaches at Nebraska,” Chatman-Smith said. “I think her future is very bright and I’m excited to see her progress throughout the years.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.