After dropping a five-set heartbreaker to Turkey on Wednesday night, No. 2 USA bounced back in impressive fashion with a dominant sweep over No. 7 Italy. Scores in USA's favor were 25-21, 25-18, 25-21.
The match included a few lineup changes from Wednesday’s loss. After giving former Husker Kelsey Robinson a chance to start for fellow former Husker Jordan Larson at outside hitter, Larson was back in the starting lineup and Robinson suited up at libero instead.
“We had been having a little struggle in our service reception, so we were looking to stabilize in that department,” USA Coach Karch Kiraly said. “I think we did pretty well and the Italians were doing a really nice job of just bringing smoke at us, really hitting a lot of hard jump spin serves; we don’t see that much in our gym because we’re so much jump float, so it took our passers a little while to adjust and eventually they controlled those hard serves in the way we needed to.”
Robinson replaced the third former Husker on the team, Justine Wong-Orantes, who Turkey targeted quite a bit in serve receive on Wednesday after USA also struggled in that area on the first night against No. 2 Poland. Wong-Orantes did not play on Thursday after playing in every set in the first two matches.
“She’s a world-class receiver,” Kirlay said about Robinson. “She was one of the best passers at the Rio Olympics. This is actually the first competition — even though it’s almost two years later — it’s the first competition that she’s gotten to play for us because she had some rest in the early part of 2017 and then had a scheduling conflict and couldn’t play with us at Grand Champions last year in September, so we’re excited to have her back in the fold.”
Robinson said she’s played libero and defensive specialist before for her club teams and Kiraly talked to her about playing the position when then-starting libero Kayla Banwarth got a concussion, but Thursday was her first time playing the position for the United States in a real competition.
“It’s just exciting to be on the court for me in any way that I can do that,” Robinson said. “Just having the opportunity to go out there and do something that I do well — passing and play defense — it was definitely a challenge that Karch put me up to and I was stoked to be out there.”
Kiraly surprised Robinson with the news that she’d be starting at libero on Thursday morning.
“It’s something that I know I have in my tool belt, but it’s always a surprise when I have to do it,” Robinson said.
In the first set, Larson served the Huskers to an early 4-1 lead with a 3-0 run and USA went on to stretch the lead to 84, then 12-7. Italy made a late run and cut its deficit to two at 19-17, but USA held on for a 25-21 win.
USA rolled through the second set, jumping out to a 9-4 lead that it stretch to 17-10 and then 20-11. Italy countered with a 5-1 run to pull within five but USA cruised to a 25-18 win from there.
Italy took an early 2-5 lead in set three looking to avoid a sweep, but USA countered with another 3-0 run with Larson at the service line. Italy pulled ahead again at 9-6 and then 12-8 but the Americans ripped off a 10-3 run to take an 18-15 lead. Italy got no closer than within two the rest of the way as USA completed the sweep.
Kim Hill led the Americans with nine kills, two blocks and two aces while Larson and Kelly Murphy chipped in seven kills apiece. Larson was the last player from Team USA to make it over to the interview area as she spent a good deal of time after the match taking pictures with fans and chatting with old friends in Lincoln.
“It’s great,” Larson said. “Obviously I haven’t seen some of these people in a while just because we travel a lot but it’s great to be back and reconnect. It was great. Great atmosphere, great facility, great to be back.”
Robinson said she was glad the United States got to start it’s run through the Volleyball Nations League in Lincoln.
“It’s so special,” Robinson said. “Any time I can come back and play in front of a home crowd and be in front of Husker Nation, it’s a special feeling and it’s exciting to start that journey here.”
Larson said the most important thing for the Americans to get out of this week was building up team chemistry once again.
“I think just getting back together and re-learning, kind of, our habits and how we train because everybody’s all over the world and everybody trains differently, everybody has a different route, different names,” Larson said. “Just reconnecting and learning all those habits again and I thought by the end here we were kind of grooving pretty well.”
Kiraly said he was proud of the fight his team showed to battle back from a 0-2 deficit against Turkey to send the match to five.
“I really liked the way we battled back yesterday down 2-0,” Kiraly said. “We got to 14-all, we had a free ball to go up 15-14; can’t ask for much more than that. I like our chances when we do that, just Turkey made a couple of good plays. All 14 of our players were making contributions whether they were on the court or not, so that’s something that we pride ourselves on, that we win together and lose together. We’re much more powerful as group of 14; nobody’s tough alone.”
No. 12 Turkey went 3-0, USA finished 2-1, No. 22 Poland went 1-2 and Italy lost all three.
Next up for Team USA? A flight to Japan for the next leg of the Volleyball Nations League.
“We’re on the bus at 4:20 a.m. tomorrow morning and we’re going to take a flight to Denver and then on to Japan,” Kiraly said. “We’re going to play three more great teams there with Japan and then our great friend, former USA assistant coach for the last four years Jamie Morrison who is now the head coach for the Netherlands — we get to play him and his team — and then we’ll also play Belgium, so three great tests again next week.”
Right now, Kiraly is focused solely on the first point of the first match in Japan.
“The average hard-fought match is about 200 points, so 200 times 12 more; we’ve got about 2,400 more points to play before we figure out what happens and if we make finals week or not,” Kiraly said. “At that point, maybe we can think about what place we want to go for. But it really comes down to how do we focus on the next one, on that single one, play number one of those 2,400 plays we have to string together.”
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.