Tuesday night marked the return of international volleyball to Lincoln as Pinnacle Bank Arena played host to the 2019 Volleyball Nations League.
Week three of the event — in its second year — brought No. 3 USA, No. 4 Brazil, No. 9 Korea and No. 15 to Germany to Lincoln for a round-robin pod. The United States opened with a match against Korea on Tuesday night and after dropping the first set the Americans rallied to win in four (19-25, 25-15, 25-22, 25-18), improving their record to 6-1 in front of an approximate crowd of 4,500.
Former Huskers Mikaela Foecke — fresh off her wedding on Saturday — and Jordan Larson were both in the starting lineup while Kelsey Robinson was suited up but did not play.
“It’s great to be back,” Larson said. “We’re just really honored to be a part of this tournament and just to be able to be at PBA in Lincoln again. The fans came out and showed their support which is great for us. It was fun.”
Middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu led the United States with 13 kills, two aces and a block while Tori Dixon added six kills in her 2019 Team USA debut.
“[The middle attack] has been a strength so far,” Kiraly said. “We’ve been running a lot of middle. Korea actually did a nice job defending it. They had a lot of blockers in front of our middles early on, and they play some really good defense. They’re a fun team to watch, so hopefully the fans enjoyed that too because they play a different style but it’s a style of spectacular defense. It’s a focus of ours to get our middles going and we had tremendous passing tonight between Megan Courtney at the ‘ro [libero] spot and Jordan and Mikaela. That was the best passing match we’ve had so far in Nations League, so that gives us more of an opportunity to run our middles.”
Larson finished with nine kills, three aces and a block while Foecke chipped in eight kills and an ace.
— USA Volleyball (@usavolleyball) June 5, 2019
The United States got off to a sluggish start, falling behind 4-0 before Larson got the Americans on the board with a kill. Korea stretched its lead to seven at 12-5 thanks in large part to five early United States errors and the Koreans kept the Americans at an arm’s length throughout the rest of the set.
Foecke put down her first kill from the back row midway through the set, eliciting a loud round of applause from the crowd.
U.S.A. tried to rally late, pulling to within four at 23-19, but Korea scored the next two points to seal the game.
Both teams recorded 13 kills in the set, but USA committed seven attack errors to just one by Korea. Annie Drews and Tori Dixon led the U.S. with three kills apiece but Drews was responsible for most of the errors with a rough first set.
“I’m not quite sure how to explain the slow start,” Kiraly said. “That’s two matches in a row we had an incredibly slow start — last Thursday in Italy against Dominican Republic. This one, I think part of it can be explained that we’re just super excited; we don’t get to play on home court very much and this is really friendly confines, there’s a lot of family and great fans here and so it’s probably easy to get a little overly activated. Eventually we got some of that energy out and settled down, and Korea was really good and pushed us around to start with. I’m glad we got to play a little extra volleyball and figure some answers out.”
The United States cleaned things up in the second set, however, jumping out to a 5-2 start and drawing an early timeout from Korea. Larson pushed the lead to 8-2 with back-to-back aces before sending the third serve long, then the U.S. scored the next four points to pull ahead 12-3.
USA took its first double-digit lead at 14-4. Korea cut it to seven at 16-9, but the U.S. responded with three straight and cruised form there. Larson recorded her only kill of the set on game point.
After committing just one attack error in the first set, Korea had 12 in the second while the U.S. served up five aces. That pressure from the service line played a big part in turning the match around.
“I think the Korean team really relies on passing in system and trying to run a lot of combos so I think the fact that we could get them out of system with serving pressure really took the pressure off us defensively,” Larson said. “I think that made our job a lot easier.”
Larson put the Americans on the board first in the third set, but Korea pulled ahead 6-3. A “mega rally” according to the in-house announcer ended in a U.S. point and sparked a 4-1 run to tie the match at 7-7, capped by a Larson kill.
The teams went back and forth with neither side able to string together enough points to take control. Korea finally pulled ahead 18-16 with back-to-back points, but the United States responded with a 3-1 run to tie it again at 19-all on an ace by Foecke. Dixon put down a kill to give the Americans the lead, but Korea responded with two straight.
Korea took a 22-21 lead before the United States closed the set on a 4-0 run to pull ahead 2-1 in the match. There were 11 ties in the set. Larson had five kills while Foecke chipped in three.
The U.S. got off to another good start in the fourth as Larson set up Foecke for a back-row kill, firing up the crowd and giving the Americans an early 6-2 lead. Korea pulled within two at 8-6 but USA responded with a 4-1 run.
Korea pulled within three a couple of times, but the United States stretched the lead out to seven at 19-12 on a big kill by Jordan Thompson, then eight at 21-13 on a kill by Ogbogu. Korea tried to make a late rally but it wasn’t enough as Ogbogu ended it with an overpass kill on match point.
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) June 5, 2019
Thompson, who replaced Drews at opposite hitter during the third set, recorded seven of her nine kills in the fourth set.
“Whoa,” Kiraly said about Thompson’s spark. “It’s interesting because that’s the pair of opposites we’ve had so far in Nations League and when one struggles, the other comes in and it’s like crazy good, and they take turns coming in and supporting the other person and giving the team a lift. They’ve both done that and tonight Jordan Thompson did a superb job.”
In the first match of the evening, No. 15 Germany upset No. 4 Brazil in five sets (21-25, 31-29, 21-25, 25-20, 15-13) behind 20 kills from Ana Paula Borgo Bedani Guedes. The United States will take on Germany on Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m.
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.