ARLINGTON, Texas — American volleyball fans could not ask for more.
Saturday lines up as what could be one of the great days in women’s international volleyball on U.S. soil when the Volleyball Nations League semifinals pits China vs. Poland and the USA vs. Türkiye.
Four of the world’s great powers in action less than 54 weeks before first serve in the 2024 Paris Olympics.
The USA and Türkiye already staged one epic VNL battle when the Americans came away with a 25-22, 25-22, 22-25, 11-25, 15-9 victory June 4 in Antalya, Türkiye, in what was the fourth and last match of the first round.
The USA has only lost twice in this VNL, in five to Japan and in five to China. On Thursday in the quarterfinals, the Americans evened that score by ousting Japan in four.
Türkiye finished the three VNL rounds 9-3, losing to the USA before getting swept by Poland and then also falling to Japan in five. Friday, Türkiye swept Italy.
China advanced by beating Brazil in four and Poland won its quarterfinal match with Germany in four.
The China-Poland match starts at 4 p.m. Central in what will be a close to sold-out College Park Center at the University of Texas Arlington with first serve for USA-Türkiye at 7:30 p.m. Both matches can be seen on volleyballworld.tv.
Against Japan, USA coach Karch Kiraly used 11 of the 14 players on his roster and got tremendous production from three young players who came off the bench. Outside Avery Skinner had nine kills in 15 errorless attacks, two blocks and four digs; middle Dana Rettke had three kills in four errorless swings and two blocks; and outside Ali Frantti had three kills in her brief appearance. They were key components in a 25-23, 25-21, 18-25, 25-18 victory.
Khalia Lanier, who started, had six kills, three blocks and 13 digs. Asjia O’Neal, who didn’t play and still has a season at Texas, has been stellar when called upon in VNL.
“Right from the first serve of the first match, week one against Serbia, Avery, Khalia, Asjia have not backed down, never once looked overwhelmed, and they’ve played lots of good volleyball,” Kiraly said.
“Avery struggled a little against Japan in week two, Khalia wasn’t amazing the other night, but they both are really impressive in terms of being thrown into the deep end and never looking like they’re close to drowning.”
While the USA came away with the victory, Kiraly nonetheless had to make those subs. This is a win-or-go-home situation and a year ago, his team was knocked out of the quarterfinals by Serbia just a year after winning Olympic gold.
“We did some good things and I think we’re capable of much more than we showed on Wednesday and we’re going to need lot of that,” Kiraly said. “Türkiye’s playing really good volleyball right now.”
Against Japan, Annie Drews started at opposite and had 11 kills and two aces, but she went out for a while in favor of Jordan Thompson, who had two kills. Haleigh Washington had six kills and a block, and other middle, Chiaka Ogbogu, had eight kills with one error in 11 attacks and a block before Rettke took her place.
Kelsey Robinson, the 31-year-old veteran who left in the third set when she banged her knee, had 10 kills and a block to go with 14 digs.
“She’s an all-around exceptional player and one of the world’s elite passers,” Kiraly said. Robinson said she could have stayed in the match against Japan.
Two USA Olympians have been unflappable, libero Justine Wong-Orantes, who had 17 digs, and setter Micha Hancock, who not only 11 digs but four kills with no errors in five attempts.
“She’s having in my opinion her best USA season ever,” Kiraly said. “She’s been doing this 2016 and full-time with USA since 2017, which means she’s in her seventh full season. I’m really happy for her and happy for our team. Not only is she setting up a storm, but she’s leading up a storm.
“She could hit her jump-spin serve, but she’s actually causing a ton of trouble with her jump float, so we’re keeping that in reserve. And because she’s been playing so much I think it actually helps her handle the load she’s handled. We hoped not to travel anybody on all three preliminary weeks of VNL, but three people did, Micha, Bri (Brionne Butler) and Morgan (Hentz). And in an effort to handle that load better she’s been jump floating and it’s been working out really well. She’s bring value in terms of everything she’s been doing.”
Türkiye, as Kiraly said, “annihilated Italy, and we’re going to have play better than we did on Wednesday.”
Against Italy, Türkiye had a 16-6 blocking advantage. Opposite Melissa Vargas had 14 kills, a block and an ace and middle Eda Erdem had six kills and five blocks. Ebrar Karakut added seven kills and a block.
When the USA beat Türkiye on June 4, Drews had 17 kills and two aces, Skinner had 16 kills, and Lanier had 11 kills and a block. Karakut had 20 kills, two blocks and four aces, and Vargas had 21 kills, a block and three aces.
“We had a fantastic battle with them and their lineup looked somewhat closer to what we expected it to look or what it was yesterday. They had No. 4 (Vargas) on the floor, they had No. 99 (Karakurt) on the floor, they had 22 (IIlkin Aydin) on the floor, some of setter 12 (Elif Sahin) and some of setter 3 (Cansu Ozbay). They did not have 14 (Erdem) and 18 (Zehra Gunes) on the floor much in the later parts of that match, who are two top middle blockers.
“And just as we have not played much with our starting lineup, Türkiye hasn’t played with the lineup that we saw (against Italy) that was clicking so well. Both teams are going to have figure some things out, but Türkiye is a different team now that they’ve naturalized Melissa Vargas.”
The high-leaping, lanky, muscular Vargas, a shade taller than 6-foot-4, came to Türkiye from Cuba. The FIVB process to become eligible takes two years.
“We first saw her in 2013 NORCECA championships and she was 13 or 14 years old and already gnarly. And she’s still gnarly and now maybe she’s 23,” Kiraly said.
She is, in fact, 23. Against Italy, she she not only had those aforemenioned stats, she kept Italy out of system every time she served.
“She’s been playing world-class volleyball for 10 years,” Kiraly said. “She’s got a vicious serve, probably one the two hardest servers on the planet on the women’s side.”
Kiraly, by the way, said that the 19-year-old Russian, Arina Fedorovtseva, is the other server and she’s a teammate of Vargas’s on the Turkish club Fenerbahce. That team also includes Erdam and Poland’s Magdalena Stysiak.
USA Volleyball noted that the Americans have played Türkiye seven times since winning gold in Tokyo and have won every match, including three friendly USAV Cup contests in California and two meetings at the 2022 World Championship.
The VNL medal matches are Sunday and then the USA will disperse for some rest before getting back together in Anaheim next month to prepare for the Olympic qualifying tournament.
“Whatever the outcome I’m really happy we get the extra two games,” Kiraly said. “It is not fun to travel 10,000 miles as we did last year to lose in the quarterfinals and travel right back.
“The FIVB has passed a lot of costs onto the teams, so if you lose in the quarterfinals they want you out of the hotel the next day and that’s not so easy when you have to change flights around and all of that.”