Kristin Richards Hildebrand has been here before. The Stanford grad has experienced the highs and lows of the FIVB Grand Prix Final Round, which gets under way on Wednesday at the Hokkaido Prefectural Sports Center in Sapporo, Japan.
Hildebrand helped the United States women's senior national volleyball team win the gold medal at last year's event. She's also been on the losing end, before the Americans went on their three-year run which they hope to extend to four this time around.
Following her All-American junior year with the Cardinal, Hildebrand joined the national team that finished eighth in the Grand Prix. She's also been on teams that have finished fifth and third.
These days, Hildebrand is the unquestioned leader, the team captain, of a group of younger Americans looking to establish their own identities.
These are the competitions that help establish those identities. No one has been through more than Hildebrand, who joined the U.S. national program in 2000, as team captain of the U.S girls' youth national team that played in Switzerland.
"Kristin is a member of our leadership council," First-year U.S. coach Karch Kiraly said. "She is well-respected by her peers, as are the other members of the leadership council in terms of looking out for teammates and being somebody who consistently brings great effort into every training, every rehearsal we have, every scrimmage we have. Kristin genuinely celebrates the accomplishments and successes in her teammates, more than herself. That is something that many on this team admire in a leader."
Team USA opens the final round against a familiar opponent in defending Olympic champions Brazil, the only team to beat the Americans during Grand Prix play this season.
While the U.S. has won the last three World Grand Prix titles, Brazil has finished second in the last three events after having won the event three years in a row (2007-2009) for its record eight titles.
Since that loss, the U.S. has won six straight to get to this rematch. The Americans are 47-5 in FIVB Grand Prix matches since 2010 and are seeking to become the first team to win four consecutive titles.
It will be no easy task. Host Japan knows a lot about the U.S., having played the Americans four times over the past six weeks. The teams scrimmaged together leading to the final round.
China, the only undefeated team during the preliminary round, is coached by former U.S. coach Lang Ping. Serbia and Italy also stand as obstacles for the Americans.
"We've had challenging pools every weekend and I'm excited to get to the finals," Hildebrand said.
The Americans conclude the final round against Japan, which has the most storied rivalry with the U.S. The two teams have met 225 times since 1983 with Japan holding a slim 113-102 series advantage.
Team USA is the only country to have played more than two of its Final Round opponents. The U.S. defeated Serbia and Japan on its opponents' home court, while losing to Brazil in Brazil. Serbia also lost to China in five sets during the preliminary round.
Hildebrand and Kelly Murphy finished the preliminary round ranked 18th in scoring with 96 points each, while Kim Hill added 80 points for 31st place.
Murphy ranked second in Best Spiker with a 45.00 kill percent, just 0.19 behind leader Risa Shinnabe of Japan. Hildebrand ranked fourth in Best Spiker with a 44.44 kill percent.
Alisha Glass contributed 5.79 running sets average for sixth-best in Best Setter during the preliminary round. Christa Harmotto ranked as the Americans' top blocker with a 0.65 block average for 11th place in Best Blocker.
Cardinal grad Cassidy Lichtman has been an effective contributor off the bench for the Americans.