USA volleyball in Japan for the final weekend of pool play


Stanford grads Kristin Richards Hildebrand and Cassidy Lichtman will be looking to help the U.S. women's national volleyball team continue its successful tradition at the FIVB World Grand Prix this weekend, the final round of pool play.

The Americans, who have won 22 of their last 23 matches at the Grand Prix dating to 2010, head to Sendai, Japan holding their destiny in their own hands.

The U.S. (5-1, 14 points) enters play in Pool M in a tie for fourth place, with the top six teams advancing to the final round, also in Japan.

Six teams currently have one loss or less. China and Japan are undefeated while the United States, Serbia, Italy and Brazil each have one loss.

The Americans have won three straight since dropping a match to Brazil. They meet the Czech Republic on Friday, host Japan on Saturday and Bulgaria on Sunday.

Pool M, to be played at Sendai City Gymnasium, is the strongest group in the final weekend, with three of the four teams ranked in the top eight of the 20-team field.

"With a younger group for this year's Grand Prix, we think it's fantastic that we get to play so many strong opponents," U.S. coach Karch Kiraly said. "That continues this weekend, where we'll face three more great tests."

After the preliminary round, the top five teams plus Japan advance to the FIVB World Grand Prix Final Round set for Aug. 28-Sept. 1 in Sapporo, Japan. The U.S. is attempting to win the premier annual international women's volleyball tournament for a record fourth consecutive year.

Bulgaria is one of four teams that follow closely behind with 4-2 records and within three points of grabbing a spot in the top six.

Bulgaria upset Brazil last week in four sets to stay in the chase for a Final Round spot. Also with a shot at the Final round with 4-2 records are seventh-place Turkey, ninth-place Russia and 10th-place Dominican Republic.

"We are not taking anything for granted," said Richards Hildebrand, the U.S. team captain. "We got another tough set of matches coming up, and we are going to battle as hard as we can so we can get into the Final Round."

Kiraly selected outside hitters Hildebrand, Kim Hill, Regan Hood and Lichtman to participate in the third weekend of pool competition. The middle blockers are Rachael Adams, Lauren Gibbemeyer, Christa Harmotto and Lauren Paolini.

Setters for week three are Alisha Glass and Jenna Hagglund. The opposites are Nicole Fawcett and Kelly Murphy.

The selected liberos are Kayla Banwarth and Tamari Miyashiro.

Both Fawcett and Hagglund were part of the opening weekend roster. Courtney Thompson and Juliann Faucette competed in the second weekend.

Through the first six matches, Murphy has led the U.S. in scoring with 80 points to rank 17th overall and ranks atop the Best Spiker list with a tournament-leading 48.9 kill percent on 135 total attacks.

Hill has added 68 points for 25th place, along with fifth-place in Best Server with 0.50 aces per set and 14th place in Best Receiver with a 35.94 efficiency percent.

Hildebrand ranks 12th in Best Spiker with 41.4 kill percent, while Gibbemeyer has been the Americans' best blocker with a 0.55 block average for 20th-place in the tournament.

Glass ranks seventh in Best Setter with 5.36 running sets average, while holding a team-best 2.09 digs per set for 24th-place and adding a 0.50 block average for 25th best in the tournament.

Czech Republic, ranked 24th in the world, enters the weekend in 13th place with its two wins against Puerto Rico in the tournament opener and against Argentina in the final match of the second weekend.

Czech Republic's Aneta Havlickova ranks sixth in the tournament in scoring with 102 points. Michaeila Monzoni has 0.65 blocks per set for 11th-best in the tournament.

The U.S. has won all four previous head-to-head meetings, the most recent coming in the 2010 FIVB World Championship in Nagoya, Japan.

The U.S. has already faced host Japan three times in 2013, with all three matches victories in Southern California as part of the USA Volleyball Cup.

The two teams have met 224 times since 1983 with Japan holding a slim 113-101 margin.

During this year's Grand Prix, Japan holds victories over seventh-place Turkey and 11th-place Germany to its credit.

Yukiko Ebata leads Japan in scoring during this year's World Grand Prix with 84 points for 12th-best overall and is 11th in Best Spiker with a 43.0 kill percent. Risa Shinnabe ranks seventh in Best Spiker with a 44.3 kill percent.

While Bulgaria may only be ranked No. 43 in the world, the U.S. knows the Bulgarians are a strong opponent.

In a pre-Olympic Games challenge series, Team USA played Bulgaria three times with the first match extending to five sets and the second match to four sets.

Bulgaria's two losses in this year's World Grand Prix are to first-place China and Dominican Republic.

Dobriana Rabadzhieva heads Bulgaria's scoring chart with 84 points for 12th place overall, as well as producing a second-best 51.2 reception percent. Strashimira Filipova ranks fifth in Best Blocker with a 0.77 average.

Team USA is 10-1 overall against Bulgaria with the one loss coming in 1998.

"I think everybody is going to be playing with nothing to lose, and we are going to have to stay on top of our game," Murphy said of the weekend. "I think we have been getting more and more consistent as the tournament has gone on. So we can continue to improve with our practices and training during the week, I like our chances."

— Palo Alto Online Sports/USA Volleyball

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