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Sterling junior helps Team USA win U18 world championship

U.S. gold for this Warrior

The volleyball career highlights list just keeps growing longer for Sterling junior Lexi Rodriguez.

After helping lead Sterling to its first-ever volleyball state championship last November, Rodriguez added a third AAU national championship over the summer.

But the pièce de résistance – at least so far for the 16-year-old – was added just last weekend. Rodriguez started at libero for Team USA’s U18 Girls Youth National Team at the FIVB World Championship in Ismailia, Egypt, where the U.S. won the gold medal – USA Volleyball’s first gold medal in an age-group World Championship for either gender.

“It’s just amazing to me that it had never been done, by any youth or junior team,” Rodriguez said. “I just remember when we won, I was in complete shock. We were world champions – the best in the world – and it was just crazy.

“We all knew if we put our hardest work in and played together as a team that we could achieve it – but when it actually happened and when you’re actually singing the national anthem with the medal around your neck, it’s so completely different than what you think it would feel like. I mean, I don’t really know where to put my medal or what to do with it now that I’m home.”

In Team USA’s semifinal and championship matches, Rodriguez was credited with 59% positive reception on 34 chances (that’s how dig stats are tabulated internationally). For the tournament, she made just 13 errors in 152 receptions.

Against Italy in the gold-medal match, she was 60% on 25 chances, as the U.S. avenged its only loss of the tournament with a 25-17, 19-25, 25-18, 22-25, 15-10 victory – after rallying from a 5-1 deficit in the tiebreaking fifth set.

It was the second five-set match against Italy of the tournament; the U.S. won the first two sets in the pool-play match before Italy rallied for a 20-25, 21-25, 25-22, 25-23, 15-13 victory on September 6.

But that was just the second match of the tournament for the U.S. team, which had only gotten together in California for pre-tournament training camp 10 days earlier.

“We definitely wanted another match against Italy,” Rodriguez said. “They were playing against China [in the semifinals], they had the game after us, and we were watching the live updates and praying that it was them. We had never played China, but they were big and physical and tough. And we knew Italy; we played them the second day, so we knew that we were still meshing together then and it was new for us, so we knew if we had another shot at them, we all had faith in ourselves that we would be able to beat them.”

When the team got together in California on August 28, it was more than a month after the players were selected at the national camp at the U.S. training center in Colorado in late July. And while the players knew each other from going through the tryouts for Team USA, there was still an adjustment period on the court in Egypt.

But Rodriguez said the team was all business, and she felt it was only a matter of time before they were playing as a strong cohesive unit.

“When we were in California, we started to mesh well together – we only had 1 day in Colorado where we knew who was on the team – so it was good to get together again, and we had our goals and we were determined,” Rodriguez said. “We were in California for 4 days, and we had gone to the beach and done other bonding things, so we had already gotten really close, so the friendships were getting there and everyone was getting close, and it was a good-fitting team. And then when we got to Egypt, we were all just very focused and determined to get a job done.”

Pool play lasted for 5 days, with four matches and an off day in the 5-team pools. The team’s time was very structured, in part because the routine helped them settle in, and in part because FIVB wanted to make sure the teams were as safe as possible in an often-dangerous area of the world.

“We played once a day; in pool play, we normally played around 12:30, sometimes a little earlier, so we’d eat breakfast and we’d go to our game, and by the time we got back, we’d just eat, shower and then kind of just chill. Then we’d have film study, and then go to bed, and it was the same schedule. Then once tournament play started, we played later, around 7-ish, so we’d have a pool session in the morning to get loose and recover, and then have another film session, eat, and then go over a couple of hours before our match. If we were the second game or third game, we’d always watch the match before us a little bit. For the most part, we would just chill in the hotel and then go play.”

Sightseeing was limited to the team’s one off day on Saturday, Sept. 7, and they even did the touristy stuff as a team – with an armed-guard escort. Unfortunately, Rodriguez said, with Ismailia about 2 hours away from Cairo, the pyramids weren’t part of the itinerary.

“The one off day where we got to leave the hotel, we did it as a team,” Rodriguez said. “FIVB was trying to keep us as safe as possible, so we went on a boat ride on the Suez Canal [south of town], just toured around there and then came back and just chilled for the rest of the day. I didn’t get to the pyramids – my parents did, though – because Cairo was pretty far, and they didn’t know how safe it was going to be for us to get there.”

The preparation for each match with such a short turnaround proved to be a crash course in their next opponent. And with team rosters changing from tournament to tournament, Team USA had to rely on video shot at earlier games during the World Championship for scouting reports; therefore, they got a little more in-depth as the tournament went on.

“The only game we had film that was different was against Mexico, which was our first match, because they hadn’t played any matches yet, so the film we had was from tournaments 6 or 7 months ago, and we didn’t even know if the roster was the same,” Rodriguez said. “But mostly, we’d scout hitters and their tendencies, and figure out what we needed to do to be able to beat them. It was mostly focused on us, and if we played the way we can play, then we’d be able to beat anyone.”

The matches themselves also took some adjusting to. Rodriguez said the international game is much different than the one she and her teammates were used to, from the pace of play to the sheer ability of the best players the other countries had to offer.

“It’s way faster, and the girls are more physical,” Rodriguez said. “Some of the Italians and Russians, they play in the professional leagues with the actual national teams for their countries, so they came prepared. It’s a lot different, but we were also the best in our country, so we were up there too. It was a lot harder practices, harder matches; it required a lot more mental toughness to get through hard times, because you’re going to make a lot more mistakes at that level – and the other team is going to take advantage of them.”

Team chemistry was never an issue, according to Rodriguez. Even with a dozen players from 10 different states, there wasn’t much friction due to unfamiliarity – although in the days of club volleyball with changing rosters, making new friends is something all of these players are used to.

In this case, the common goal of bringing home a gold medal was enough to bond the group closely. Still, it took a few matches for the team to start hitting on all cylinders.

“It clicked with all of us playing together after a few matches,” Rodriguez said. “In the first couple ones, we’d go through little rough patches, ups and downs, and you could tell from the communication errors and things that we were not familiar with each other. But by the end of the tournament, we clicked and we were rolling.

“Communication was the biggest thing; we literally went from practicing for 4 days to playing in a world championship, so it really requires a lot of communication, a lot of getting to know how people play on the fly.”

Not surprisingly, the closest bond Rodriguez formed was with two future teammates at Nebraska: setter Kennedi Orr from Eagan, Minnesota, and hitter Lindsay Krause from Papillion, Nebraska. The trio had met previously at Husker summer camps, and were the only players on the U.S. roster who were committed to the same college.

It was like an early jump-start on their college playing career together, and they made the most of it.

“Definitely with those two more than anyone else, I felt comfortable, because I was already a little familiar with them,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve only ever gotten to play together at camp, which isn’t really game-speed, just practices mostly. So getting to play together, especially for the USA, was a great feeling. We all took pictures and group hugs with just us three. It was special to share that, knowing that we’ll be future teammates and best friends, roomies, all of that in college.”

When the anthem was sung, and the celebration was over, the team flew back to the U.S. on Sunday. Rodriguez says she got home to Sterling about 2 a.m. Monday, and she turned around and went to school later that morning.

“I wasn’t jet-lagged at all, so I just went to class,” she said. “I got jet-lagged going over there; when I was there, I’d be up at 1 in the morning and couldn’t fall asleep. But coming home, it hasn’t been bad at all.

“Still, school is definitely a little stressful; I have a lot of stuff I have to make up. But being back in the gym with my friends that I get to play with for Sterling and the community, it’s one of my favorite things to do, so I’m happy to be back.”

Rodriguez kept tabs on the defending Class 3A state champion Golden Warriors while overseas – “Since I’d be up at 1 in the morning, which is when Sterling was playing back here, I would sometimes get on [the internet] and watch if I knew I couldn’t fall back asleep,” Rodriguez said – and she admitted it was difficult to watch her best friends and teammates playing without her where she couldn’t be a part of it and help them win matches.

She even felt a little at fault when Sterling lost three matches while she was away, because she wanted to be helping her friends on the court, not watching from afar.

“It was hard, just seeing them play, hoping that they would win, and knowing that they’re giving their all and not being able to pull through with the win a few times was just hard to watch,” Rodriguez said. “I knew that they were all trying their hardest and not giving up, but it’s never easy to see your best friends and teammates lose – especially when you can’t be there for them.”

But Rodriguez was back in the lineup Tuesday night in a two-set loss to rival Rock Falls, and again Thursday night when the Warriors notched their first win since the return of their all-state libero, a two-set Western Big 6 victory in Rock Island.

And despite not being at practice for about 2½ weeks – she practiced all through the preseason, then left for California the day before Sterling’s first match – she feels her experience with Team USA will help her get back in sync with her Warrior teammates fairly quickly.

“After learning a new group of teammates so fast with Team USA, coming back now, it’s easier to pick up what people do, how they react to stuff,” Rodriguez said. “And I’m already familiar with most of the girls on the team, but just the new ones now, the freshmen, it will be easier to play with them and get them to trust me more.”

As for what’s left on Rodriguez’s volleyball to-do list – she’s checked a lot of boxes already at only 16 – there are still a few things she’s got her eye on.

And anyone who knows Rodriguez isn’t the least bit surprised that she’s not content to rest on her laurels.

“I’d probably say more state titles, a national championship at Nebraska, and then the end goal would obviously being able to play for USA someday again at the Olympic level,” she said. “Having the success, it motivates me more, I feel like, just knowing that I’m right there at the top, and if I just keep pushing, I’ll be prepared when I get challenged in the future at Nebraska or at any level, or in life.”

Pool Play

• U.S. def. Mexico 25-21, 25-21, 25-16 (Sept. 5)

• Italy def. U.S. 20-125, 21-25, 25-22, 25-23, 15-13 (Sept. 6)

• U.S. def. Korea 25-11, 25-17, 25-13 (Sept. 8)

• U.S. def. Canada 25-10, 25-13, 24-16 (Sept. 9)

Tournament play

Round of 16 – U.S. def. Egypt 25-13, 27-25, 25-17

Quarterfinal – U.S. def. Japan 17-25, 25-13, 25-19, 25-20

Semifinal – U.S. def. Brazil 25-18, 25-18, 25-14

Final – U.S. def. Italy 25-17, 19-25, 25-18, 22-25, 15-10

Rodriguez stats

Match 1 – 59% positive on 22 receptions (0 errors)

Match 2 – 31% positive on 39 receptions (6 errors)

Match 3 – 38% positive on 13 receptions (2 errors)

Match 4 – 27% positive on 11 receptions (1 error)

Round of 16 – 63% positive on 19 receptions (2 errors)

Quarterfinal – 21% positive on 14 receptions (0 errors)

Semifinal – 56% positive on 9 receptions (0 errors)

Final – 60% positive on 25 receptions (2 errors)

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