World No. 1 U.S. volleyball team gets another chance at Rio
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) Foluke Akinradewo returned to San Francisco after missing out on an Olympic berth with the U.S. women's volleyball team at last year's World Cup in Japan and knew she had no choice but to get over it fast and get back in the gym right away to prepare for the next opportunity.
The world No. 1 Americans hardly expected they would have to take the longer road to Rio de Janeiro.
Securing that spot in Japan would have been the preferred time to qualify, and that's how the U.S. expected it to go before losses to Serbia and Russia - rather than now just seven months before the start of the Olympics.
''After losing World Cup, coming in third and not being able to qualify for Rio, I was really upset, not in a great place,'' Akinradewo, a middle blocker, said Wednesday. ''This has actually turned out to be a blessing to get the opportunity to be with one another again, to keep working on where we left off. It seems as though everyone came back very grateful and appreciative of getting another opportunity to be with one another, and we've been really going hard in the gym. We realize that we're not where we need to be yet. We haven't taken this time for granted.''
In fact, the Americans reconvened from their club teams and Christmas on Dec. 26 to start their preparations for this week's second chance at Olympic qualifying, and did so with a noticeable, newfound energy and commitment to one another. That has largely been coach Karch Kiraly's theme of ''family'' for this Olympic cycle since he took over for Hugh McCutcheon after the London Games, where he was an assistant.
''I was a little nervous just to see how people would come back and if they would be in a good state, it has been great to come back, I feel like everybody is refreshed and renewed and has a new perspective on what's ahead. It's been a lot of fun,'' outside hitter Jordan Larson said. ''When you're kind of in the grind all summer, you don't realize - you recognize the grind and you don't recognize the people that you're grinding with and take that a little bit for granted then when you go overseas and you come back and you're like, `Wow, this group is super special and it's so much fun to be part of something bigger than just yourself.'''
The Americans open the NORCECA round-robin event Thursday night by facing Canada in the late match, after the Dominican Republic takes on Puerto Rico.
In 2015, the U.S. went 41-6 while winning the Pan American Cup, Grand Prix and the Continental Championship in Mexico that earned the team its spot in this event. Even with the disappointment at the World Cup, Kiraly believes in his deep, diverse squad and its ability to do something special in Rio - once the Americans seal their spot, of course.
''We have a good team and we were one match away from having the best season this program has ever had,'' Kiraly said after practice Wednesday. ''We won Pan Am Cup, we won Grand Prix, we won Pan Am Games with a split team, simultaneous tournaments, we won NORCECA and we had two losses in the World Cup. If one of those had turned into a win - and we were very close - then we would have won World Cup for the first time ever and gotten an Olympic berth.''
It just so happens a trio of former Nebraska players will compete in front of friends and family at Pinnacle Bank Arena beginning Thursday for an Olympic berth right back where they played their college careers in Lincoln.
Larson and Kayla Banwarth each played collegiately at Nebraska while U.S. teammate Kelsey Robinson spent one year with the Huskers.
''Nebraska is the epicenter of volleyball,'' said coach John Cook of the newly crowned NCAA champion Cornhuskers women's program. ''Having three Huskers on the USA team is a really big deal here. That is not an easy team to make. ... Nebraska is used to this, and the fact three Nebraska girls are on the team will make this a great event. Our fans know volleyball, really well.''
After the World Cup miss in late August into early September, the U.S. players have largely been away from each other with their club teams overseas. They are counting on finding their groove in a hurry this week to earn their place in Rio, where the Americans are yet to win a gold medal since volleyball joined the Olympic program in 1964.
''One of our strengths is how well we respond to adversity,'' setter Courtney Thompson said. ''Certainly we would have liked to have qualified at the World Cup and finished stronger but we've gotten this opportunity to come together. Especially when we're usually overseas. It is a family, so it's refreshing in every sense that we can think of and there's an excitement and an urgency to come play together and fight together, and get the job done. We're very highly motivated. We always are. In one sense, you fail or you don't accomplish the goal and you come at it with a new energy. It's been so fun.''