Kayla Banwarth dives for a dig while teammates Kim Hill (15) and Molly Kreklow (18) prepare to run the offense
Omaha, USA, July 26, 2015 – There is no place like home, and the USA women have basked in the spotlight on home soil this week in the FIVB World Grand Prix Final being staged in Omaha, Nebraska, taking in the rare opportunity to hear positive cheers from adoring fans.
The American squad, which rarely has the chance to play high-level home matches, has benefited from the crowd support. On Saturday, they captured their sixth World Grand Prix title with a victory over two-time defending champion Brazil. And the USA (4-0), the first to win the World Grand Prix title on their home court in the 23-year history, still has one day remaining in the competition leading three teams with 2-2 records.
Three of the USA players are not only playing in their home country, but in familiar territory. Outside hitters Jordan Larson-Burbach and Kelsey Robinson along with libero Kayla Banwarth played collegiate volleyball at nearby University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which is located about an hour west of Omaha. For both Larson-Burbach and Banwarth, both have also played in the CenturyLink Center Omaha where this week’s Finals are taking place.
Playing so close to home, whether from her college roots or her nearby hometown of Dubuque, Iowa, a short drive away, Banwarth has been excited that her family and friends have had to chance to watch her in person.
“It is good to be playing in front of family and friends,” Banwarth said. “These fans, this state and volleyball community is special to me. This building is pretty special for me. It always feels good to come back to Nebraska. I left a little piece of my heart here. I am happy girl right now.”
Banwarth said that the team has grown accustomed to hearing fans rooting against them while playing almost exclusively away from home, but the positive home energy this week has been great for the team.
“It is nice to have people actually cheering for you, which doesn’t happen very often for us,” Banwarth said. “It is a nice change.”
Since hosting two preliminary round weekends of the World Grand Prix held in 1995 and 1996, the U.S. has not played an FIVB event at home. The USA began the USA Volleyball Cup three years ago as a means to connect to fans in the United States, which has resulted in home series against Japan in 2013, Brazil in 2014 and China earlier this year. Outside of NORCECA World Championship qualification tournaments in 2009 and 2014 with second-tier teams, the 2009 Pan American Cup and limited exhibition matches, the USA has been a vagabond team traveling the world for matches.
So this week in Omaha has been a special opportunity for Team USA to connect not only with family and friends, but volleyball players and fans from an area outside of their training location in Anaheim, California.
“It is really great for Kayla, Kelsey and Jordan obviously, but also for a lot of us who have a lot of family here,” said USA setter Molly Kreklow, who has a few dozen family and friends in Omaha to watch her wearing the red, white and blue USA uniform. “My whole family is here, so it is cool to be playing in front of them in our country.”
Normally, the Americans hear boos directed at them from the crowd and this week has been atypical of the scenario being on home soil.
“Anywhere we go, everyone wants to beat us,” Kreklow said. “So being here and having people cheering for us is cool.”
Although she played at the University Missouri, an old rival University of Nebraska, Kreklow feels at home seeing the fans full of red in their support of the local college players now on the USA squad.
“It is so cool seeing all the Nebraska shirts, and it is awesome it is red because obviously red, white and blue. I think in general all their fans are here and they support USA. It is really cool for the rest of us to be a part of that.”
After the USA captured the World Grand Prix title on Saturday, Robinson was elated to do so in her old stomping grounds.
“It gives me the chills,” Robinson said. “You don’t get opportunities like this to play in America and to be in Nebraska to play in front of family and friends. My heart feels good.”
And now the team hopes this tradition of playing home important home matches continue beyond just this week’s World Grand Prix Finals.