Jordan Larson

Foluke Akinradewo, Jordan Larson
AP

U.S. women’s indoor volleyball league to begin play next year

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The top women’s indoor volleyball players in the U.S. will now have their own professional league at home, giving more athletes an opportunity to prolong their careers past college without having to go overseas.

They will get to help govern the league themselves, too.

Athletes Unlimited, in partnership with USA Volleyball, announced plans Wednesday for a six-week league to begin next February in an as-yet undetermined city in the Southeast. It won’t conflict with the U.S. team’s preparations ahead of next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

“I’ve been a professional volleyball athlete for a decade now and every time we want to make a living and go play professionally we have to leave the country to do it, so to have Athletes Unlimited, not only having a shorter season, getting to play at home for the first time, it’s so special,” U.S. star Foluke Akinradewo, who has signed on to play, said during a telephone interview Wednesday.

“They’re empowering the athletes. We get to kind of determine the rules and we have a big say in things. It’s really the opposite of the life we’re living overseas.”

Some, like Akinradewo, still plan to play overseas. Fellow American Olympic teammate Jordan Larson will be part of the new league and she also plays professionally in China, while Akinradewo competes in Japan.

Molly McCage is another player who has committed. The three women will determine which 48 players are invited and set rules for the league, which will feature an innovative format without general managers or owners. Four captains will choose their teams one week then a points system from that week will determine the captains for the next week of competition.

“This is a sport that has a huge following around the world, close to a billion people play volleyball around the world. It has huge pro leagues in many countries, both on the women’s and men’s side,” said Jon Patricof, Athletes Unlimited CEO and co-founder. “For this to be the first pro indoor women’s league in the U.S. is tremendous and a huge moment for the sport.”

Athletes Unlimited has also launched a pro softball league.

Akinradewo is a new mom with a 5-month-old son, so the flexibility to be home more in the U.S. will mean a lot. She expects the new league will keep more players involved and grow the game domestically.

Akinradewo and the No. 1 Americans earned bronze at the Rio Olympics four years ago. Initially, the league will feature only U.S. players but there is a possibility to expand down the road.

“It’s kind of a no-brainer as to why people would want to sign on to this,” Akinradewo said. “It’s just a different look at the game of volleyball as we know it.”

MORE: Jordan Larson preps for her last Olympics

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Jordan Larson preps for her last Olympics, one year later than expected

Jordan Larson
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Whether the Tokyo Olympics would have been this summer or in 2021, Jordan Larson knew this: It will mark her final tournament with the U.S. volleyball team, should she make the roster.

“I’m just not getting any younger,” said Larson, a 33-year-old outside hitter. “I’ve been playing consistently overseas for 12 years straight with no real offseason.

“I also have other endeavors in my life that I want to see. Getting married, having children, those kinds of things. The older I get, the more challenging those become.”

Larson, who debuted on the national team in 2009, has been a leader the last two Olympic cycles. She succeeded Christa Harmotto Dietzen as captain after the Rio Games. Larson started every match at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

As long as Larson was in the building, the U.S. never had to worry about the outside hitter position, said two-time Olympian and NBC Olympics volleyball analyst Kevin Barnett.

“She played as if she belonged from the start,” he said. “They will miss her all-around capability. They’ll miss her ability to make everyone around her better. She’s almost like having a libero who can hit.”

Karch Kiraly, the Olympic indoor and beach champion who took over as head coach after the 2012 Olympics, gushed about her court vision.

“It’s a little dated now, but somebody like Wayne Gretzky just saw things that other people didn’t see on the hockey rink,” Kiraly said in 2018. “And I remember reading about him one time, and the quote from an opposing goalie was, oh my god, here he comes, what does he see that I don’t see right now? She sees things sooner than most people.”

Larson grew up in Hooper, Neb., (population 830) and starred at the University of Nebraska. She was a three-time All-American who helped the team win a national title as a sophomore. She had the opportunity to leave Nebraska and try out for the Olympics in 2008 but chose to remain at school for her final season.

She earned the nickname “Governor” as a Cornhusker State sports icon.

Larson helped the U.S. win its first major international title at the 2014 World Championship. She was also part of the program’s two stingers — defeats in the 2012 Olympic final and 2016 Olympic semifinals, both matches where the U.S. won the first set (and convincingly in 2012).

“It just gives me chills thinking about it now,” Larson said of the Rio Olympic semifinals, where Serbia beat the U.S. 15-13 in the fifth. “That team, we put in so much. Not just on the court but off the court working on culture and working on how are we best for each other. How can we be the best team? How can we out-team people? Certain teams have a better one player that’s a standout that we maybe didn’t have or don’t have. So how can we out-team the other teams? We had just put in so much work that was just heartbreaking.”

Larson and the Americans rebounded to win the bronze-medal match two days later.

“I don’t know anybody that didn’t have their heart ripped out. It was just a soul-crusher of a match,” Kiraly said of the semifinal. “More meaningful was what a great response everybody, including Jordan, mounted to the disappointment of that loss.”

The U.S. took fifth at worlds in 2018 and is now ranked second in the world behind China.

Larson spent the past club season in Shanghai. The campaign ended in mid-January. She hadn’t heard anything about the coronavirus when she took her scheduled flight back to California, learning days later that LAX started screening for it. Now, she’s working out from her garage.

Larson is in line to become the fifth-oldest U.S. Olympic women’s volleyball player in history, according Olympedia and the OlyMADMen.

Her decade of experience could go a long way to help the next generation of outside hitters, led by three-time NCAA champion and Sullivan Award winner Kathryn Plummer.

“If you’re coming into the USA program as an outside hitter, in the next year or the quad or the quad after that,” Barnett said, “the measuring stick is going to be Jordan Larson.”

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MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

U.S. women’s volleyball beats China, finishes atop Pool B

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AP
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Before the U.S. women’s volleyball team had even completed its match against China Sunday, they had wrapped up the top spot in Pool B by virtue of winning the second and third sets.

China took the first set 25-22, but Karch Kiraly’s team would win the next three to complete pool play undefeated. Next up for the Americans will be Japan, which defeated Argentina to take fourth place in Pool A.

Kevin Barnett: “Nobody wants to play the United States”

Jordan Larson-Burbach led four Americans who finished in double digits in kills with 15, and she also had a team-best 14 digs.. Foluke Akinradewo added 13 kills, and Kelly Murphy and Kelsey Robinson had 11 apiece. Kayla Banwarth was second on the team in digs with nine. The U.S. grabbed control of the match during the second set, which they led by as much as eight on three separate occasions before winning 25-17.

While China would be competitive in each of the next two sets, the reigning Olympic gold medalists won both by a score of 25-19 two wrap up the match and a 5-0 record in pool play.