Three former Huskers returned home as the U.S. Women’s National Team made its 2018 debut at the FIVB Volleyball Nations League pod at the Devaney Center on Lincoln on Monday night.
All three Nebraska alumni — outside hitters Jordan Larson and Kelsey Robinson and libero Justine Wong-Orantes –– saw the floor in the first set as the second-ranked Team USA beat No. 22 Poland 3-1 (28-26, 25-22, 22-25, 25-15). The Americans showed some signs of rust throughout the match after playing with just a few pre-pod practices under their belt but closed it out in dominant fashion.
“It’s the same for every team in this tournament; we’ve all had very little time to train, and so there are a number of plays where that becomes apparent both on our side of the net and certainly on Poland’s side of the net, Turkey’s and Italy’s also,” USA coach Karch Kiraly said. “So this presents a new challenge for us, one that we’re embracing in terms of figuring stuff out on the fly. We knew very little about this team, they didn’t know much about us because we hadn’t played against them in four-and-a-half years. All in all, a good effort.”
USA built up a 16-10 lead midway through the set but started to get a little sloppy in serve receive and lot Poland back into the match. A 6-1 Poland run knotted the set at 21-all. The two teams battled back and forth until Robinson checked in off the bench and gave the Americans set point at 24-23.
USA failed to capitalize, though, as Robinson misfired on her next attempt. The teams traded a couple of set points until USA pulled ahead 27-26 and Kelly Murphy ended it with a kill.
“We had a really tough serve receive game in that first set,” Kiraly said. “We got a little better as it went along. part of it is players getting to know who has what seam; that takes some time usually.”
The second set was back and forth throughout with neither team managing to take control until Larson asserted herself late in the set, scoring three of USA’s last five points as they turned a 20-all tie into a 25-22 win.
The third set got away from the Americans a bit as Poland extended the match with a 25-22 win, but USA dominated the fourth, stretching a 16-13 lead into a 25-15 win to seal the match.
“We’ve only been together a couple times, like four or five practices where the crew has been together, so I think we’re still working out a lot of kinks,” Larson said. “In the end, I think we made the decision that, hey, we’re not going to accept anything less than our max effort so I think we did a really nice job of setting that tone.”
Michelle Bartsch-Hackley was the focus of the USA attack on Tuesday and led all players with 25 kills.
“She’s got a hammer,” Larson said. “You can see her arm, she’s got a lot of heat. I think that’s definitely one thing that she adds to this group.”
Barstch-Hackley is a newer member of the team, making her FIVB debut in 2016 before playing with Team USA throughout 2017, and she had high praise for the more experienced Larson.
“This is the first time I’ve played next to Jordan so that was really awesome for me too; she’s great to play with … She’s amazing,” Bartsch-Hackley said. “She helps me with passing and really, she sees the game before anyone else does. Her communication helps our team.”
Larson finished with 16 kills and two aces while Kelly Murphy added 13 kills.
“Husker Nation is amazing,” Wong-Orantes said about playing in front of the Nebraska fans once again. “I can always count on them to just watch some really good volleyball. It’s cool to feel their presence here and I think that’s what you get at Devaney. It’s really cool to see non-Huskers kind of feel that way.”
Wong-Orantes is attempting to succeed current Nebraska assistant coach Kayla Banwarth as the program’s top libero and she filled that role on Tuesday.
“She got better as the match went along,” Kiraly said. “I think she was also getting more comfortable and more acclimated.”
In the first match of the day, No. 12 Turkey swept No. 7 Italy 25-21, 25-21, 25-20.
The event will continue on Wednesday night as Poland takes on Italy at 5 p.m. and USA faces Turkey around 7:30 p.m. at the Devaney Center.
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.