Team USA wins FIVB World Grand Prix in Omaha

by Glenn on July 28, 2015

We’re a month away from the happy return of Stanford Cardinal Women’s Volleyball. It’s been a long time since the Cardinal’s bummer loss in the Final Four to Penn State last December 18 (video here just to feel sad again).

The nature of sports economy dictates that there aren’t winners and losers, have’s and have not’s. In sports, there is one winner who takes it all. Everyone else is a loser and does without.

I admire athletes because they have that drive that pushes them to compete, knowing that the odds are heavily stacked against them winning it all. Among the things I respect about Cardinal Volleyball is the fact that they consistently perform so well year in and year out. For one program to do well another program (or programs) must underperform. There’s room for only one at the top.

The fact that Stanford does so well is a testament to both coaching excellence and player commitment. It’s not like other teams aren’t trying to beat them. But last year, with the exception of Washington and Penn State, they couldn’t. I suppose I could be a fan of Cardinal volleyball simply because it’s fun to root for a team that wins a lot, but I am more in awe of the longer game that they are playing.

I am looking forward to seeing how the Cardinal does this season. They have a good news/bad news situation this fall. The good news is a great recruiting class, including Hayley Hodson, a freshman who is already playing on one of the US National Teams. That’s pretty exciting. Read an interesting article here.

The bad news is the loss of middle blocker Inky Ajanakou for the season with a knee injury this summer as she was also doing some work with Team USA.

Speaking of Team USA, in this lull before the college season begins, it’s been fun to catch some magnificent volleyball the last few weeks as Team USA has been competing in the FIVB World Grand Prix. They’ve done exceptionally well, with one exception: China. Two weekends ago Team USA lost to China in a match in Hong Kong. It was worrisome because in other matches I’ve watched, Team USA has run a system that has been enough to get the job done. But with China, they were unable to find a way to win.

This past Sunday morning, Team USA beat China, which would feel great, except they weren’t playing China’s best players. On the other hand, Team USA may not have had all of its best players on the court, either.

So the China question remains to be answered, perhaps next month in the World Championship, which China’s best players were resting up for.

Team USA has actually been playing in two tournaments of late, the FIVB World Grand Prix that moved to Omaha, Nebraska this week and the Pan-Am Games in Toronto, Canada. But even with a divided talent pool, this was a great weekend for Team USA Women’s Volleyball. In a weird twist of something both of Team USA’s women’s volleyball teams ended up playing and beating Brazil on Saturday, 26 July 2015, which meant a Gold Medal for the team up in Toronto and a clinched victory for the FIVB World Grand Prix in the final round robin weekend in Omaha, Nebraska.

I have been able to watch a number of FIVB matches because they were available on the internet. Otherwise, it’s a difficult sport to find on television. Nancy tells me this is an indication of how far from the main stream I am. But if I’m living in Europe (or anywhere besides The United States, really), a love for volleyball is pretty normal. If I understand the system correctly, in Europe you join a club that sponsors a team and then you buy tickets to go cheer on your team. I would do that here in Portland.

Anyway, on Saturday, I went to one of those sports places with televisions all over the place thinking I could watch Team USA play Brazil because our cable package doesn’t carry the network that these matches are on. Sadly, it wasn’t on even in a restaurant where every square inch of wall space was filled with screens of sports. There was baseball, soccer, UFC, mixed diving (didn’t even know there was such a thing), but no volleyball. Fortunately, they had the internet, so surrounded by 87 screens with nothing on, I watched Team USA play Brazil on my phone.

Among the things I like about volleyball is a level of complexity that isn’t there with, say, basketball. In basketball five players match up against five players from another team and the action goes back and forth. From time to time, there is a substitution and a new alignment but it’s not that difficult to follow. In volleyball there is a similar kind of back and forth, but the constant rotation of teams around the court, the ability of coaches to make six substitutions in the course of a game, and presence of a defensive specialist who is able to go in and out constantly makes it really interesting to try and follow. (I think the NCAA allows for twelve substitutions, which is pretty hectic to follow. Last year, Stanford seemed to follow the international rules. You could understand the flow a little easier.)

I’ve noticed that both of Team USA’s teams use similar rotational tactics. If they are receiving, Team USA will start their setter in position 2. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1

Figure 1 | Team USA’s set-up for receiving the first serve.

If Team USA is serving first, the setter will serve first. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2

Figure 2 | Team USA’s set-up when they have first serve.

The rotation moves all the way around once. Then, when the setter moves into position 5, an outside hitter will sub in to serve in place of the middle blocker who has just moved into position one. (See Figure 3.) This is to set up a really interesting situation.

Figure 3

Figure 3 | Team USA’s first substitution.

On the next rotation, Team USA will do a double substitution. (See Figure 4.) The setter who was going to be in the front row is replaced by an opposite and the opposite who was about to serve is replaced by a new setter. This means instead of a setter moving into the front row, a big girl, by which I mean a tall girl, moves into the front row and a setter remains in the back row.

Figure 4

Figure 4 | Team USA’s double substitution.

Assuming I was accurate in both my tracking and typing, Figure 5 shows the complete set of rotations and personnel for the first set of the match between Team USA and Russia on Friday, 24 July 2015. (Coach Kiraly may change personnel, but this basic map seems to stay the same.)

Figure 5 |

Figure 5 | Team USA’s rotations for the opening set in its match versus Russia on Friday, 24 July 2015.

(See USA Russia Set 1 072415 for a pdf of Figure 5.)

On rotation 24 the starting middle blocker comes back in (substitution no. 4). And then following rotation 25 another double substitution (substitutions nos. 5 & 6) brings back in the starting line-up.

The genius of all this is that this series of substitutions allows the consecutive rotations of 14-15, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21, 22-23, 24-25, and 26 (and, had the game gone on, also the rotations -27, 28-29, and 30-31) to place three big girls in the front row. (Again, by big girl, I mean tall girl. No disrespect intended.)

Of course, your ability to run a system like this depends on your team having two really good setters. Team USA does. Molly Kreklow has tended to start and then Courtney Thompson comes in, almost as a relief pitcher. And then when Kreklow comes back in, usually with a big hitter like Karsta Lowe, there’s a big energy push for the end of the game. It really is an impressive set-up. And I’m pretty sure that the American team playing up in Toronto ran the same system. I watched the gold medal match for fun and didn’t try to take notes.

Other things:

It helps to have extraordinarily athletic middle blockers. Foluke Akinradewo and Tori Dixon both find themselves on the service line which means they have to do some back row digging on rallies.

It’s impressive to see how many of Team USA’s players are involved in a match. Ten out of the twelve on the roster actually played in this match. From match to match it’s not the same ten. This shows depth.

Scoring feels relatively balanced. I haven’t analyzed it, but it seems like the sets are spread around to all the hitters. And there is some creativity to the setting. There were a couple of moments in games where the middle blocker headed out toward the pin and the opposite (Karsta Lowe) was given the set up the middle. It’s fun to see a little deception through an unusual attack.

I also marveled at the creativity of Team USA with its reception rotations. Teams must follow the rules of overlap. See Figure 6. (From Jayme DeHart’s Understanding and Implementing Volleyball Rotations.)
1. You may not be closer to the net than the player in front of you.
2. You may not be closer to the end line that the player behind you.
3. You may not be closer to the left sideline than the person on your left.
4. You may ot be closer to the right sideline than the person on your right.
5. All athletes must be in-bounds at the time of the serve. (Unless they are the server.)

Figure 6 | Overlap rules.

Figure 6 | Overlap rules.

Team USA pushes these rules to the very limit.

Example 1a


Example 1b

Example 1: The outside hitter from front row position 3 (Kim Hill) slides into the back row to help receive the serve. Note: She is still to the right of position 4 and just a step in front of position 6. Also, the opposite (Karsta Lowe, here) is still to the left of position no. 6 even though she is way behind her. This is not the rotation you played back in middle school when everything just moved in a simple circle. The circle is getting stretched pretty well, here.

Example 2a Example 2b

Example 2: Rotation 3 (Receive) Again, the outside hitter from front row position 3 (Kim Hill) has slid into the back row to help receive the serve. Positions 4-3-2 are all in the correct order left to right and position 2 is still in front of position 1, but just barely.

Example 3a

Example 3b

Example 3: Rotation 5 (Receive) This is one of my favorite set-ups. The setter, playing in the back row is actually in the front row. The outside hitter from the front row (position 4) is in the back row. She is just barely in front of the libero, but I think an inch is as good as a mile.

Example 4a

Example 4b

Example 4: Rotation 7 (Receive) Here’s another stretch. Position 3 is in the back row to receive while position 5 is ready for the set.

Here are the other two reception sets. It’s all legal, but it shows great creativity. And none of the players seem to be consciously working to make sure they are in alignment. The on-court awareness is wonderful.

Example 5a

Example 5b

Example 6a

Example 6b

I don’t envy Coach Kiraly’s job of having to pick the team (is it 14 players?) that goes into the World Cup. And it must be agonizing trying to earn your way onto this team. You need the skills. And you need to get along with the coach and the other players. I can see a situation where the best player doesn’t necessarily make the team.

Volleyball is very much a team sport. You can’t win with just one dominant athlete. This was my observation of NCAA volleyball last year. Karsta Lowe dominated on her UCLA team and Krista Vansant on her Washington Huskies. Both teams did well, but the best teams seem to have balance in scoring. At the same time it’s really nice to have a player who can dominate. It’s been unreal to watch Karsta Lowe these last couple of weeks. It must be exciting to find yourself on a team where you’re not necessarily the best player or, at least, the rest of the team is right there with you on level of ability.

Karsta Lowe gave a post-game interview, if I recall correctly, following last Wednesday’s game versus Japan.

I love what she said about involvement:

“We talk a lot about level of engagement and I think that was a huge part for me [making the transition from UCLA to Team USA] showing up to practice mentally and physically every single day. Not that I could mail it in at UCLA but, you know, show up, do my thing alright, but here it’s like you’re playing with these girls—the best in the world—and you can’t mail it in whatsoever. You have to be there every single day giving everything. Having the challenge of earning a spot on the team was really motivating for me.”

While we wait for the Stanford WVB season to begin, it’s exciting to have a great distraction. Go Team USA. News available here.

Also, I have discovered a phenomenal volleyball blog here. The writers are based in Seattle so there is some privileging of the University of Washington volleyball program, but the writing is terrific. They’ve done some phenomenal assessing of Team USA, in particular who has the best chance of making the World Championship and Olympic team.