ARLINGTON, Texas — The kids were all right.
And now the USA women are on to the Volleyball Nations League semifinals.
The second-seeded Americans beat seventh-seeded Japan on Wednesday 25-23, 25-21, 18-25, 25-18 in a match that went way deeper than the scoreline shows.
Now they’ll play the winner of Thursday’s 2 p.m. Central match between Türkiye and Italy. In the 10:30 a.m. match, Brazil plays China for the right to play Poland, which earlier Wednesday beat Germany.
While veterans Annie Drews had 11 kills and the team’s only two aces for the USA and Kelsey Robinson Cook had 10 kills and a block, the young reserves, led by Avery Skinner and Dana Rettke, took over the latter half of the match.
They entered in the third set and Skinner finished with nine kills and two blocks and Rettke had three kills in four errorless attacks and two blocks.
“I just wanted to come in and make an impact in whatever way I could,” Skinner said. “We needed someone to put the ball away.”
Even Ali Frantti, who also came in late, had three kills, including a big back-row attack the first time she touched the ball.
“All those kids coming in and taking big rips, it’s fun to be a part of,” said Robinson Cook, who left the game in the third set when she chased down a ball and bumped her knee into the stands. She said she’s fine and could have continued.
Setter Micha Hancock, who had three kills, said “big chests.”
“We like to say that, come out with ‘big-chest’ energy and they did a great job today,” Hancock said.
The outcome was significant in two big ways. In the 2022 VNL quarterfinals, the USA was ousted in five by Serbia. And earlier this VNL, it took one of its two losses when it fell in five to Japan.
“I don’t think anything really felt comfortable, and that’s OK,” USA coach Karch Kiraly said. “Sometimes we have to figure out ways to win the next point when the other team just seems to be getting a hand on everything. Very few kills were clean, that is straight to the floor, but that was a great team effort.
“We love playing that team. They were relentless and it was really difficult to end the rally. We made some adjustments and like I said, it was a total team effort. Lots of people came in to help out.”
Skinner, who is from the Dallas area, was beaming after she got to visit with plenty of family and friends “and lots of old teammates” after the match.
“I think for me, knowing I was not going to start, I still wanted to be super mentally engaged. So I prepared like I was starting and I think that definitely helped when I was called and went in,” Skinner said. “The team did a great job and that super important in the win.”
Rettke said her role on her Italian pro team prepared her the situation.
“For my club team this year that was kind of my role,” said the 6-foot-8 middle. “And I’m confident in that role … I’m confident to go in any situation and do the best I can.”
The first set took about 50 minutes. Japan led 6-4 but never after the Americans took a 7-6 lead on an ace by Drews. The USA saw a 20-16 lead evaporate but broke a 23-23 tie on a kill by Chiaka Ogbogu and ended it on a Drews kill.
Things went smoother for the Americans in the second set, not that it was any easier. Khalia Lanier had three kills and two blocks in the second and it was her vicious swing out of the back row that won it. Washington had four kills in the set and Drews and Ogbogu had three each.
Kiraly substituted in the third set, putting in Jordan Thompson for Drews, Rettke for Ogbogu and Skinner for Lanier. Skinner responded right away in a big way with a couple of kills and some key defensive plays but it was not enough.
In the fourth, Skinner went off early and her third kill of the set made it 5-2 and Japan called time.
At 11-6, Cook chased a ball down unsuccessful next to the USA bench and landed awkwardly. She went back on the floor, but Kiraly wasn’t taking any chances and inserted Frantti.
The first time Frantti touched a ball was for a high-flying back-row kill that put the USA up 14-8 and caused Japan to call time.
The closest it got was 21-18 late before the USA pulled away and closed it out on another Skinner kill.
“When someone is not in the lineup at an instance and they are a game changer, meaning their job is to change the game, everybody who came in changed the game,” Kiraly said.
The only USA players of the 14 who didn’t see action were Lauren Carlini, Asjia O’Neal and Morgan Hentz.
Yukiko Wada led Japan with 13 kills and Arisa Inoue had 12. Airi Miyabe, who played at Minnesota and last season played pro in Japan, had five kills and five blocks in her first trip back to the U.S. since college. Her former Minnesota coach, the retired Hugh McCutcheon who was the 2012 USA women’s coach with Kiraly as an assistant, was here to watch the match.
Friday is an off day, with semifinals on Saturday and medal matches Sunday.
“We’ll of course watch the match tomorrow, the winner of which we’ll play, and we have some practice and a lift and a debrief,” Kiraly said. “Our team will also have some family and friend time. It will be nice to have two days and get ready for Saturday.”