Inaugural Athletes Unlimited season marks watershed for American women’s volleyball

Kelsey O'Loughlin, Staff Writer

For the first time, a professional volleyball league will be formed on American soil. Athletes Unlimited, a company that recognizes the individual and team aspects of professional sports, brought an innovative scoring system to softball – which premiered this past summer — complementing its earlier premiers of the system to volleyball in February and lacrosse in July. e Developed by CEOs Jonathan Soros and Jon Patrico, this league features a player-centric model that makes sure the athletes are involved every step of the way. The sport of volleyball has five central positions — setter, libero, middle, outside hitter and opposite hitter. Athletes Unlimited highlights the individual actions of players in these roles and their exceptional serving, passing, assisting and attacking. The teams are new every week, since the top four players (based on their point count) can draft their team. At the end of the season, the player with the most points is crowned as the AU champion. The first AU season will occur in Dallas, Texas, at the Fair Park Coliseum. Their TV contract with CBS and Fox Sports which enables both networks to air 22 of the 28 games in the season.

Athletes Unlimited recognizes the need for more female sports leagues in the United States. This achievement might seem like a simple addition to an already-saturated American sports media ecosystem. However, it is an incredible blessing for the athletes that are competing to be playing in their home country. After college, most of the top volleyball players in the NCAA wish to continue their volleyball career as a professional; unfortunately, their dream comes with the harsh reality of emigrating to a foreign country in order to continue playing. From Italy to Japan, these players must leave home in search of regional leagues in which they may pursue their professional dream. It is a difficult life for these women, navigating a new country alone to while frequently overcoming a language barrier and the unfamiliar regulations of the international volleyball system. While these athletes are playing the sport they love as a career, many of their college classmates at home and pursue traditional careers. After playing overseas, for 10-plus years in some cases, to play in America in front of their family and friends means so much more than we can imagine.

One player who recognizes the monumental importance of leagues like AU is one of indoor volleyball’s true celebrities, Jordan Larson, a professional player from Fremont, Neb. Larson played at the University of Nebraska from 2005-2008. At Nebraska, she was a two-time first-team All-American, 2008 Big 12 Player of the Year, a two-time Olympian in 2012 and 2016, and named best outside hitter in the 2017 FIVB world games. As a talented athlete who has been around the game for 20 plus years, she admired the AU founders’ innovative approach. But, while chasing her dreams abroad, she missed many major life events back home. Her presence in the volleyball world allowed her to recruit the best players from the United States and abroad.

The women are excited and ready to compete with new and former teammates. The 44 athletes come from the Big 10, PAC 12, ACC, SEC and more. The players range from different phases of life, with some athletes fresh out of college and others well into retirement when the league developed. The Big 10 has the highest number of athletes with 20, as alumni of Nebraska, Minnesota and Penn State play together as teammates and rivals in the professional realm. The PAC 12 is represented by many, including Karsta Lowe, a 2015 graduate of UCLA. Lowe is one of many who are relatively new to the professional sphere. At the other end of the spectrum are veteran players like Cassidy Litchman played at Stanford from 2007-2010 and continued her career overseas in the professional league. After retiring in 2016, she returned to Stanford as an assistant under her former coach John Dunning. Coming out of a five-year retirement for this league shows how monumental AU is for the volleyball community. Another inspiring story is Kelly Hunter, a two-time NCAA champion who graduated from Nebraska in 2017. After playing overseas for one season, she returned to Lincoln to assist under her former coach John Cook. This past year, she was promoted to the first assistant position but decided to come out of retirement to play in the United States.

A significant source of excitement for this league is its location; not only Dallas, but the state of Texas in general, is one of the hot spots for youth club volleyball in America. Many of the players grew up in the Lone Star State or began their collegiate careers in  cities like Austin, Waco, College Station, Baylor or Houston. Club volleyball is the industry in which young women get recruited to play in college. Some of the best clubs that send girls to the top-ranked programs in NCAA volleyball come from Texas.

This group of women is made up of All-Americans, NCAA champions and Olympians. From fresh out of college to 15 years removed, these women are finally receiving the opportunity and the coverage they deserve while playing the sport they love.

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