Lincoln, United States, May 15, 2018 - Michelle Bartsch-Hackley’s attacking firepower helped the United States survive an unexpected thriller and make a winning start in the Volleyball Nations League thanks to a hard-fought 3-1 (28-26, 25-22, 22-25, 25-15) victory over a plucky Poland side.
Bartsch-Hackley was the focal point of the American offense and racked up 25 kills in front of an enthusiastic Nebraska crowd, with home favourite Jordan Larson providing strong support with 20 total points of her own.
USA head coach Karch Kiraly was thankful for their contribution as Poland, ranked 22 and given little chance ahead of their clash with the reigning world champions, put up a tenacious fight to cause the hosts some serious concerns.
Malwina Smarzek was the driving force behind Poland’s bid for an upset, racking up 22 offensive points, while Martyna Grajber mixed strong leaping ability with savvy defense to keep her team in contention.
While the Americans ultimately proved too strong, Tuesday’s action showed that despite home court advantage at the Bob Devaney Sports Center, Kiraly’s team may not have things all their own way during the first round of matches.
One thing he can count on though, is passionate support, with the audience especially keen to cheer on former University of Nebraska trio Larson, Justine Wong-Orantes and Kelsey Robinson.
The first set was a classic, and could easily have fallen to either team. The USA went to Bartsch-Hackley time and again down the stretch, but her exploits were being matched with just as much ferocity by Smarzek.
Larson had to sit briefly after sustaining a grazed hand while diving into the boards to rescue a deflected ball and Poland was fighting for every point. Ultimately however, experience counted, and Kelly Murphy finished off a nail-biter with two strong spikes to clinch the set.
The second was nearly as tense, and up until the very end, the USA again found it difficult to shake clear. The composure in the young and inexperienced Polish team was on display again as Natalia Medrzyk rose spectacularly to knock down an American attempt to flip the ball over her head, giving her team a 19-18 lead.
However, the heavy hitters on the home side held their nerve exactly when it mattered. Bartsch-Hackley was back at the net at the crucial time and her teammates continued to set her up whenever possible.
Larson, constantly threatening, finished off the set with a big spike - and a sigh of relief.
Poland coach Jacek Nawrocki was rightly proud of his team’s efforts but neither he, nor his team, was done yet.
Smarzek looked to be tiring but Nawrocki turned to his bench and it paid dividends as Poland crept into a 16-15 lead.
Just when the Americans looked to have the answers again, with a Carli Lloyd ace and some deft touch from Bartsch-Hackley putting them back in front 21-19, Poland went on a spectacular surge.
Julia Nowicka, a 19-year-old setter, twice stunned Bartsch-Hackley to block fierce spikes straight back to the American side.
A couple of errors later, and the USA had surrendered the set, with Kiraly shaking his head in bemusement at the unlikely turnaround.
The coach, an Olympic champion both indoors and on the beach, urged his troops to “reload and re-engage” and, in the fourth, they did.
Some tight early exchanges were followed by a strong American surge, as the visitors finally ran out of steam.
Larson finished emphatically and this time there was no answer, as the USA sealed victory by a 10-point margin in the fourth and will now take on Turkey, who beat Italy on day one. Poland will aim to build upon their strong performance against the Italians, on Wednesday.