US trio of setters helps lead the way for American women
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) Kelsey Robinson lifted Courtney Thompson into a congratulatory embrace when the match finally ended, celebrating the reserve setter's timely ace serve in a hard-fought win against Italy.
It took something from everyone for the United States women's volleyball team to stay unbeaten in Rio.
''It's so special when you see Courtney get an ace,'' Robinson said. ''We're lifting her up. That's something that people don't see she's been working on every single day outside of practice.''
Thompson is part of a trio of setters that is playing a key role for the top-ranked Americans in their chase for the first ever U.S. gold in women's volleyball at these Olympics.
Alisha Glass, Carli Lloyd and Thompson huddle together during timeouts with their position coach, and words fly around for about a minute as they compare notes before returning to play.
It's a rare roster to carry three setters on a 12-player Olympic squad, yet that is how valuable each of these women is to coach Karch Kiraly and the U.S. quest. The quarterfinal-bound Americans (4-0) held off the Italians 25-22, 25-22, 23-25, 25-20 on Friday. It marked the first time Italy won a set in four Olympic matches.
While coach Tom Black is often focused on the opponent's tendencies, he trusts the three setters to ''let each other know if we're letting it rip or we need to pick up the speed.''
Lloyd earned her spot with a remarkable run leading up to Rio. At 31, Thompson is the oldest player for the Americans and their heart and soul behind the scenes - and typically the first to bust a dance move in the corner of the court where the backups stand.
''She's absolutely on the court,'' Glass said of Thompson's influence. ''That's her, she's never not going to be somewhere, you just feel her no matter what ... She just has such a presence. There's no way we come here without her and do as well as we're doing.''
In May 2013, it was Glass and Thompson along with a few other young setters not in Rio who set the example for the Americans during this four-year Olympic cycle on how to commit to being a team of constant learners, driven to be better in every aspect of the game - from their technical play such as a pivot move they worked to perfect to make the offense faster and unpredictable, to the mental side and everything else like tireless work in the weight room.
''They were the position group that embraced that the earliest and led the charge and modeled it for the other positions, with Tom leading them early in 2013,'' Kiraly said. ''We started running our offense faster, which just means the sets don't go high out to the sideline, they go low and fast.''
No drama. No hard feelings about playing time. Just a joint desire to reach the top of the medal stand in Rio.
''It's different than overseas. We don't have that same relationship with other setters and a setting coach,'' Lloyd said. ''I love it.''
Thompson, who was called upon to fill in for injured setter Lindsey Berg in London four years ago, understands that her moments stepping on the Olympic court before leaving Brazil might be limited.
''Every person in this program has an important role and I certainly feel that way about mine,'' she said. ''It's unique, but it's for a reason.''
Thompson is constantly talking, moving, encouraging from every angle.
''She's the spine of the team in a lot of ways,'' Black said.
During some matches, players in the sub box rub their hands together as if warming them ''then sending in the good energy,'' added Thompson.
She's always cheering.
''Nice pass, you guys!''
And when the Americans needed to secure their Olympic berth through a second-chance qualifier back in January at Lincoln, Nebraska, it was Thompson who sent out a group email ahead of time letting her teammates know the time was now. The U.S. had already missed a chance at last year's World Cup in Tokyo.
One night in Lincoln, Thompson, Nicole Fawcett and Robinson ran through Pinnacle Bank Arena with arms waving ''pretending we won the gold medal,'' Thompson said.
They hope to do it for real in Rio.