Athletes Limitless returns, serves up professional volleyball season openers Friday

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Bethania De La Cruz celebrates profitable AU’s 2022 volleyball season/AU picture

Athletes Limitless will tip off its third season on Friday with a 44-player roster that features six members who’re a part of the USA national-team program and scads of names which are acquainted to volleyball followers the world over.

“I didn’t know precisely what to anticipate, however the AU system makes volleyball new and thrilling,” stated former Oregon star and first-time AU participant Brooke Nuneviller, who joined this system in Mesa, Arizona, about two weeks in the past. “Particularly if you’re an expert athlete, it begins to be extra of a job.

“So when you may have all of those new guidelines and level methods, it’s simply completely different. That lends a brand new, thrilling twist to the sport.”

The league has mainstream TV publicity: Every match throughout AU’s five-week season might be seen on the linear ESPNU cable channel or the streaming ESPN+ platform that numbers 25 million subscribers.

The kicker is that Athletes Limitless is simply the beginning of a wave of girls’s indoor skilled volleyball set to interrupt throughout america.

The primary-week schedule

Friday, October 6
Crew Nootsara vs. Crew Valentin-Anderson, 7 p.m., ESPN+
Crew De La Cruz vs. Crew Edmond, 9:30 p.m., ESPN+
Sunday, October 8
Crew Edmond vs. Crew Valentin-Anderson, 7 p.m., ESPN+
Crew Nootsara vs. Crew De La Cruz, 9:30, ESPN+
Monday, October 9
Crew Edmond vs. Crew Nootsara, 7 p.m., ESPN+
Crew Valentin-Anderson vs. Crew De La Cruz, 9:30 p.m., ESPN+

Week one draft

Athletes Limitless final held a season within the spring of 2022 in Dallas and can compete for the following 5 weeks in Mesa, Arizona. The primary-week captains, based mostly on how AU completed final trip, are defending champion Bethania De La Cruz (an outdoor hitter), Natalia Valentin-Anderson (setter), Nootsara Tomkom (setter) and Leah Edmond (OH).

Nootsara Tomkom/Jade Hewitt Media

The primary-round picks within the draft for this week’s matches held on Tuesday have been outdoors hitter Alli Linnehan (by Edmond), OH Yossiana Pressley (by Nootsara), OH Brooke Nuneviller (by Valentin-Anderson) and setter Alisha Glass Childress (by De La Cruz). Plucked within the second spherical have been reverse Willow Johnson (De La Cruz), reverse Saskia Hippe (Valentin-Anderson), center hitter Molly McCage (Nootsara) and center Danielle Hart (Edmond).

De La Cruz, a member of the Dominican Republic’s nationwide group, set the AU factors file with 4,652 the final season, after ending second within the standings with 3,690 within the inaugural marketing campaign behind American famous person Jordan Larson.

Among the many gamers on the AU roster are gamers who’re within the USA national-team fitness center, together with Stanford’s Morgan Hentz (libero), Wisconsin’s Sidney Hilley (setter), Penn State’s Nia Reed (reverse), Penn State’s Kendall White (libero), Hart and Nuneviller, an AU rookie who performed her first professional season in Türkiye final season was picked third general within the draft.

The league welcomes 25 newcomers, together with 2022 AVCA All-Individuals outdoors Claire Chaussee (Louisville), setter Gabby Blossom (Penn State/San Diego), Nuneviller (Oregon) and Hart (Wisconsin).

The total rosters are on the finish of this story.

Getting ready for the season

Nuneviller was stoked to be drafted third general by Valentin-Anderson, the veteran from Puerto Rico who will probably be her setter with the Omaha Supernovas within the Skilled Volleyball Federation when the startup league begins play after the primary of the yr.

Brooke Nuneviller attacking for Nilufer this previous March

“It was unimaginable to get picked so excessive, notably with a setter I will probably be enjoying with in Omaha,” stated Nuneviller, a wonderfully athletic 5-foot-11 participant who’s adept as a libero or an outdoor hitter.

Nuneviller has been busy since an All-American marketing campaign at Oregon that ended final December. She has performed professionally in Türkiye, in addition to competed with the USA within the Nations League, Pan Am Cup and on the gold-medal-winning squad within the NORCECA Pan Am Cup Remaining Six.

We huddled with Nuneviller and Valentin-Anderson on completely different days, however the first-week AU and future Supernovas teammates expressed just about the identical sentiments concerning the “group vs. particular person” points of Athletes Limitless’s scoring system.

“The person part is a part of the scoring, however I’ve come to understand that AU is rather more team-oriented than an outdoor viewer would possibly suppose,” Nuneviller stated. “Crew factors and wins are price by far essentially the most factors you will get, so the gamers who’re going to be on the prime of the leaderboard on the finish of the season are going to be those that assist their groups win. How folks work with the group goes to be a major side of it.”

Her “we vs. me” outlook was not misplaced in Valentin-Anderson.

“Holy, moly, have a look at that!” Natalia exclaimed. “I’m all concerning the group effort. I’m so pleased to listen to Brooke say that. I’m going to inform Brooke tomorrow that we answered the identical factor. It nonetheless has extra to do with wins and losses. In case your group wins, there’s a greater likelihood of creating it larger. So I concentrate on making the group higher, grinding every week and making an attempt to make the groups win as many video games as attainable.”

Valentin-Anderson earned the captain’s spot in three weeks of the 2022 season and she will spot a distinction between the expertise on the roster between this yr and final.

“From final yr, the extent has grown,” she stated. “It’s not that it was dangerous final yr, it’s simply that we have now extra full gamers within the fitness center. We now have nice center blockers who can serve, play protection, set a ball out of system. We now have all-around outdoors hitters. And we have now a beautiful mixture of veterans and younger folks. When that occurs, and people two teams come collectively, it creates nice competitors. I simply love that [in this format) every week when you come to the gym, you have to scout people, you have to stay on your toes.

“The beauty of this league is that it rewards the players who can adapt quicker. The overall level has gone up because we have a lot of skilled, complete players at every position.”

The IUPUI team gave Symone Abbott a group hug last week before she headed to AU/Lee Feinswog photo

Veteran Symone Abbott, who played in the league’s debut season in 2021 and returns in 2023, added perspective about AU’s loaded gym. Abbott, who is from Indiana and played at Northwestern, recently spent time helping coach and play with the team at IUPUI in Indianapolis.

“I see a lot of talent across the board,” Abbott said. “It’s a super-competitive league. Sometimes it gets a bad rap because it gets compared to overseas overall because it’s month-and-a-half long and it has this very different scoring system. But that doesn’t mean that the league is just as competitive as any overseas league, if not more. If you’re on one team with 12-13 girls, you’re competing with maybe three girls for a starting spot at your position and in AU you’re competing against maybe 12-13. So you have to be that much better.”

Athletes Unlimited, the nascent PVF and League One Volleyball (LOVB) that is scheduled to launch in fall of 2024 offer American players viable alternatives to the overseas leagues, a welcome change, even though Nuneviller said her season playing for the Nilüfer Belediyespor team in Türkiye was filled with positives.

“My management was great, my coach was excellent, the girls that I played with were incredible,” she said. “The Turkish girls welcomed me with open arms and made me feel I was a lot closer to home than I was. I made a lot of great friends here. I got paid on time, which you never know with clubs overseas, especially as an American.”

Nonetheless, playing at home holds an undeniable allure.

“I kind of take life year by year with my volleyball career,” Nuneviller said. “I’m really looking forward to having opportunities to play in the United States now and in the future. That really excites me, and I can see myself doing this for a long time. But I don’t want to close any doors overseas. A lot of our top players on the national team are playing in Italy and Türkiye still, so while there are exciting things overseas, I do love the factors here of being closer to family and friends.”

Fueling the optimism are metrics for indoor volleyball that seemingly point upward every week. On Saturday night, for example, the NCAA women’s match between Nebraska and Indiana lured 328,000 total-average viewers to Big Ten Network, just 21,000 fewer than what had tuned in for the late-afternoon regional football games aired on BTN.

“The growth has been incredible,” Nuneviller said. “Another metric you can add is that Oregon volleyball broke its attendance record (with 7,334 fans) in its season Pac-12 opener. I played in front of over 5,000 fans at Oregon and it was a surreal feeling, So I can’t even imagine what it was like with a couple more thousand in that arena.”

Abbott, who left the collegiate ranks in 2017 and has played professionally in Italy, Greece, Puerto Rico and Türkiye, wishes this opportunity “had come along a few years earlier,” but is gratified to still be able to catch the wave of opportunity.

“This is a huge year for indoor volleyball in America,” Abbott said. “There are three leagues now that are kind of duking it out for position — AU, PVF and LOVB — and I’m all for it. Volleyball is only moving up. It’s been popular for a long time, but now that it will get more visibility brought on by these pro leagues, it’s just going to skyrocket.”

The format/scoring

AU’s non-traditional format calls for four captains drafting teams each week, and those squads play a six-match round-robin spread across Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays, at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Eastern each day.

The top four point-scorers from Week 1 become the captains in the second week and the draft process begins anew.

Athletes Unlimited is an individual competition contested within a team framework. The league champion is the player who scores the most points over 15 matches, with points awarded not only for team victories (in sets and matches), but for players voted as match MVPs, and for individual statistics such as kills, aces, assists, blocks, digs and accurate passing. The system penalizes errors. For example, a kill counts as eight points, but an attacking error subtracts 12. Ballhanding errors by setters are particularly punished: An assist is worth one point, an error is minus-12.

“The individual component is part of the scoring, but I’ve come to realize that AU is much more team-oriented than an outside viewer might think,” Nuneviller said.

“Team points and wins are worth by far the most points you can get, so the players who are going to be at the top of the leaderboard at the end of the season are going to be those who help their teams win. How people work with the team is going to be a significant aspect of it.”

First-week rosters

TEAM DE LA CRUZ
Facilitator: Kayla Banwarth
Betty De La Cruz, OH
Alisha Childress, S
Willow Johnson, OPP
Anota Adekunle, MB
Nomaris Vélez, L
Lindsey Vander Weid, OH
Karis Watson, MB
Gabby Blossom, S
Erin Fairs, OH
Kayla Caffey, MB
Symone Abbot, OPP
TEAM VALENTIN-ANDERSON
Facilitator: Brandon Directo
Natalia Valentin-Anderson, S
Brooke Nuneviller, OH
Saskia Hippe, OPP
Shelly Fanning, MB
Katie Lukes, OH
Tori Dixon, MB
Maria Schlegel, OH
Kaz Brown, MB
Nia Parker-Robinson, OH
Amanda Benson, L
Ray Santos, S
TEAM NOOTSARA
Facilitator: Stephen Gbur
Nootsara Tomkom, S
Yossiana Pressley, OPP
Molly McCage, MB
Claire Chaussee, OH
Ali Bastianelli, MB
Kendall White, L
Nia Reed, OPP
Aury Cruz, OH
Nicole Edelman-Cagliari, S
Sassá, OH
Marin Grote, MB
TEAM EDMOND
Facilitator: Dave Rubio
Leah Edmond, OH
Alli Linnehan, OH
Danielle Hart, MB
Morgan Hentz, L
Sydney Hilley, S
Jenna Rosenthal, MB
Génesis Collazo, OPP
Taylor Bruns Tengenrot, S
Deja McClendon, OH
Emma Willis, MB
Lindsay Stalzer, OH



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