You could certainly argue that of the six USA volleyball teams in the Tokyo Olympics — women’s indoor, men’s indoor, and two beach pairs of each gender — that the American indoor women have the best shot at gold.
They’re ranked No. 1 in the world and coming off a dominating performance last month in Rimini, Italy, where they won the Volleyball Nations League, losing just one match along the way.
“We’re happy that we got out of it healthy. We left VNL healthier than we entered, so props to our medical team and strength-and-conditioning coaches,” said Luka Slabe, not only the team’s defensive coordinator and blocking coach, but also the head coach at NC State.
“There were quite a few players who came back from Europe (this past spring) unable to practice and not even compete. So throughout the VNL we got to figure that out and, of course, you want to all the athletes to get equal opportunities to compete and show what they have. With our depth and everything that USA Volleyball has, that’s extremely hard to do.
“We had all these different options and lineups. It was incredibly tough to do that.”
It worked well.
At VNL, the team — which hadn’t played together since the fall of 2019 — finished the regular tournament 14-1, losing only in its last regular match in three sets to China. The Americans then swept Turkey in the semifinals before beating Brazil in four to win gold.
Michelle Bartsch-Hackley, named the MVP of the tournament, had 18 kills as the USA came away with a 26-28, 25-23, 25-23, 25-21 victory to win its third VNL gold medal in row. The USA also won in 2018 and 2019, while there was no tournament last year.
“We’re healthy, we won gold, you’re always happy when you win, but we also know that a lot of teams were testing different people, different lineups,” Slabe said. “Some teams were at full strength and some teams we saw were not at full strength. So there’s a lot to learn in that group stage in Tokyo.
Speaking of which, the USA is in a pool with Argentina, Russia, Turkey, China, Italy. Argentina didn’t play VNL, but the Americans beat Russia, Turkey, and Italy, and took that loss to China.
“We are all looking forward to that we get to play some really, really good teams in our pool,” Slabe said. “Tough pool, but it’s going to be a fun pool and it’s really hard to see any team getting out of this group without a loss.”
The goal, he said, “is get out of the pool and into the quarterfinals.”
The other pool has Serbia, the Dominican Republic, Japan, Kenya, Brazil, and Korea.
This is the first Olympics for Slabe, who has quite an impressive volleyball resume on many levels.
“I’ve been waiting for this for 44 years,” Slabe said. “All my life, as a little boy, I’ve been dreaming how I was gonna make it. Here I am and it’s a very special Olympics. We’re back in Tokyo where in ’64 women’s volleyball was introduced as the first women’s team sport at the Olympics. Now here we are back in Tokyo during this pandemic, which adds another level.”
Slabe won a national championship as an outside hitter at BYU, which also made it to the NCAA championshp match in 2003. He played professionally in Europe before starting his coaching career in 2008. He coached in his home country of Slovenia until joining the men’s staff at BYU, where he was an assistant for three seasons.
Slabe, who joined the USA program in 2018, got the NC State job in February 2020, just before the pandemic shut everything down. Part of the deal was that he would be able to fulfill his USA obligations.
Even though he’s got the USA’s defense and blocking, Slabe noted that all the coaches have input into all areas of the program.
“Sometimes Tama Miyashiro helps me on the defensive side and is in charge of serve-receive, and Erin Virtue is in charge of our offense in combination with Karch,” Slabe said. “And, of course, Karch as the head coach oversees, but he has a lot of trust in us.”
Speaking of that defense, the lone libero is Justine Wong-Orantes, but in previous years outside hitter Kelsey Robinson has played libero for the USA and at VNL another outside hitter, Kim Hill, also donned the libero jersey. When it comes to blocking, the USA has quite a contingent in middles Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson, Chiaka Ogbogu, and Haleigh Washington; opposites Jordan Thompson and Annie Drews; and in setter Jordyn Poulter is one of the best right-side blockers anywhere.
“This is a very humble and very fun group to be around,” Slabe said. “They understand that business must be taken care of, and they’re the most professional group I’ve ever been around and I’ve coached International volleyball at a very high level. But this is the most professional group.
“But when we have fun, we can have fun, but business is business. They understand that and I’m very proud of them how they go about their work and they’re business every day.”
Assumedly, some of the credit for that has to go to the most seasoned veterans on the team, outsides Jordan Larson and Bartsch-Hackley. The roster also includes the other setter, Micha Hancock.
(Rob Espero visited with head coach Karch Kiraly not long after the 12-player team was announced last month and he broke it down in this in-depth interview.)
Slabe was a young boy when he first saw Kiraly.
“I went to Italy to watch him,” Slabe recalled. “I was maybe three hours from Ravenna from Slovenia, the former Yugoslavia. Being just an hour from the Italian border, every Sunday when I didn’t have to compete we would drive to nearby cities and watch Italian Division I volleyball. Karch, (Steve) Timmons, (Bob) Ctvrtlik, all those guys were there.”
Now he works for him and helped him pick this USA roster.
“Choosing the 18 (players) who went to VNL, that was a tough one. And then you have to choose 12 (for the Olympic roster), and now we’ve got to choose the starting six plus the libero,” Slabe said. “We’ve achieved that while we were playing OK volleyball and we won and got healthier.
“But I always see things we need to work on.”
Accordingly, Slabe thinks the team has improved since returning home from Italy for 10 practice sessions ahead of the Games.
“I think we got a little bit better,” he said, “and I think we’re ready for Tokyo.”
The ACC had an eight-match fall season. Slabe’s NC State team lost its first four matches, but won its last four. In the spring, with the final two matches canceled, NC State went 4-5.
“I made the right decision,” Slabe said of taking the NC State job.
The Wolfpack is young, but just one player got postseason honors when outside Jade Parchment made the all-ACC second team. She’s part of a core group returning, including leading attacker Melissa Evans and setter Kristen McDaniel. Parchment will be a senior, Evans a grad student, and McDaniel a junior.
The Wolfpack roster also includes six freshman, three sophomores, and three other juniors. One of those freshmen, outside Oliwia Durka from Poland, who could be an immediate impact player. No one transferred in, but outside Elissa Alcantara came in from Colorado, where last spring she averaged 2.11 kills and .43 blocks per set.
“I’m really looking forward to what we can do once we can get rid of this COVID and recruit normally and travel normally,” Slabe said.
“I’m going to be around for a while if they’ll have me and I’m optimistic and excited about what we can do here. My family loves it and it’s a really beautiful area.”