When the four-year period leading up to the Tokyo Olympics began, the United States women’s national team were going through a bit of a rebuild after taking bronze at the Rio 2016 Games.
Wong-Orantes wins the American libero race
The defender shines at the VNL and is selected for the Olympics
Published 01:30, 21 Jun 2021
Several key players including captain Jordan Larson, middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo and outside hitters Kim Hill and Kelsey Robinson were set to continue with the team, but some places needed to be filled including a critical one at the libero position.
Players were tested in the position over the last four years, including Robinson, but when head coach Karch Kiraly announced his 12-player roster for Japan, it was Justine Wong-Orantes who was selected.
The 25-year-old libero, who was still playing for her college team Nebraska when some of her teammates won bronze in Rio, first appeared in the USA team in 2017 and has gradually improved her status leading to the Tokyo 2020 selection.
“When I look back to the first year of the quad, all I can think about is the amount of sweat and tears that followed,” she said about the moment the list was released. “I cried when I heard the news, I was so full of emotions. I’m super excited and so grateful for it.”
Wong-Orantes believes improving her serve reception game helped earn Kiraly’s confidence and made her stand out from her competitors, including Megan Courtney, the best libero of the 2019 FIVB Volleyball Nations League.
Her hard work paid off and she is currently the top-ranked American player in the skill in the 2021 edition of the VNL, and the 15th-best overall with 88 passes completed in 11 matches.
“We’ve been running a really fast offence and serve reception certainly comes into play with that,” she said. “I’ve been really trying to work on my serve reception over the last four years and developing that part of my game.”
One other thing that helped Wong-Orantes develop as a player was the fact that she got to spend the last two years playing professionally in Germany. Between 2017, when she graduated from Nebraska, and 2019, she trained at the USA Volleyball facility in Anaheim, California, but did not play in matches outside the international season.
“The German League is a really good league to play, especially as a libero, because there’s a really good variety of players,” she said. “Every match there is about good preparation and that has helped me a lot coming to the national team.”
Wong-Orantes and her teammates won 14 of their 15 Preliminary Round matches in the VNL and will do their best to secure their third-straight VNL title and get to Tokyo in great shape.
“These matches are really important for our preparation,” added Wong-Orantes. “After two years of not playing together, we’re super excited to be back. It’s been so fun for us to be out there and it's allowing our entire team to play freely and have fun with each other. I feel like we’ve been doing a lot of things really well and I hope we can continue clicking in the VNL Finals and the Olympics.”