Hooker, U.S. aim for London breakthrough

BY foxsports • July 18, 2012

In the first set point of the US women's volleyball team's final tuneup before the London Olympics, all 6 feet and 4 inches of Destinee Hooker's graceful frame effortlessly rose from the floor before the slender opposite delivered a punishing kill into the backcourt of the Bulgarian defense, claiming the first set for the Americans in a straight-sets victory.

It was a sight seen often throughout a five-day, three-game set of friendlies that appeared to confirm both the United States as a favorite in the upcoming Olympic Games and Hooker's status as among the brightest up-and-coming stars in women's volleyball.

The United States' 25-18, 25-17, 25-19 victory completed a three-game sweep in the USA vs. Bulgaria Challenge Series on Wednesday at the University of Southern California's Galen Center and marked the 17th consecutive victory in 2012 by the world's top-ranked women's national team.

Peaking just before the 2012 Olympic Games, the United States moved atop the FIVB's world rankings last November, ending a four-year Brazilian run at the top.

It is because of an infusion of youth brought by Hooker and middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo — along with the savvy veteran skill of five-time Olympian Danielle Scott-Arruda and four-time Olympian Logan Tom — that has helped make this a complete United States squad capable of living up to its world ranking.

"I think over the quad, the young players have gotten a lot of experience playing, and where they might not have some experience, we have the older players, who can talk and help them out," Scott-Arruda said. "Our bench, in terms of our staff — we've got a third-time Olympian in (assistant coach) Paula (Weishoff), in (Assistant Coach) Karch (Kiraly), and the gold medalist coach. We've got a lot of depth around the team besides the age."

Seven players will be making their Olympic debuts later this week as part of a team consisting of players who are on average nearly three-and-a-half years younger than their male counterparts, whom current women's head coach Hugh McCutcheon guided to a gold medal at the 2008 Olympics. The average age of the men's team is 32 years.

Hooker, 24, was a dual-sport star at the University of Texas who in 2009 became the second female athlete in NCAA history to win three outdoor high jump titles and the first female high jumper to win both the indoor and outdoor high jump titles in five years.

Similar to what it did for outside hitter Matt Anderson of the US men's national team, the 2012 Olympics could help reinforce Hooker's status as one of the game's rising stars and a dominating
mainstay on the U.S. women's roster for many international tournaments
to come.

"A few of the girls tell you, 'When you get to the Olympics, it's a whole different level,'" Hooker said of the advice she's received from the team's veterans. "Some of the teams that you've beaten before, you may not be able to beat. And you have to be able to be mentally focused and mentally prepared for that, because in London . . . expect the unexpected. I think that's our main focus going in, just playing our own game and finding our rhythm."

The 39-year-old Scott-Arruda hasn't necessarily taken it upon herself to educate the younger players on what to expect in the upcoming month, in an effort to not "get caught up with the distractions that come with an Olympics." But she is cognizant of Hooker's skill level, as well as the jigsaw-puzzle mix of youth and experience the United States is carrying into the Olympics — where they're widely viewed as among the favorites to win the gold medal.

"She's really gifted. She's very athletic, and she can make the play when we need her to," Scott-Arruda said of Hooker. "I just see her continuing to do her thing. I think she's a great player. She's really humble even though she's young. She still has a leadership role in her performance. But she has a good supporting staff, so she doesn't have to feel all the pressure."

This United States team has never taken home gold in the Olympics. But it won silver in Beijing and three consecutive golds at the FIVB World Grand Prix — sweeping its way through the 2012 Grand Prix in Ningbo, China with a 14-0 record — and there exists an interesting degree of confidence that is more self-assurance than swagger.

"I think it's more of a focused level," Hooker said of the team's mindset. "Definitely we're not that kind of team that has that swag, because we have not proven anything yet. Being number one in the world, we don't have a gold medal to back it up with. So I think going into London, we have to go in strong and confident, but not too confident."

The team was drawn into the more challenging pool in group play in London, where five of the top eight teams in the world were placed. The Americans won't waste much time before taking the court against the team they replaced atop the FIVB rankings: They face Brazil in the rematch of the 2008 gold medal game in just their second pool play game after an opener against 15th-ranked South Korea. The U.S. has won four straight against Brazil, including two games in the 2012 World Grand Prix.

"It's still tense," Hooker said of the rivalry with the Brazilians. "When we play them on the 30th, I know it's still going to be a lot of head-to-head competition. There are great players over there, and they're the 2008 gold medalists, so it's going to be a lot of battling going on."

Though Scott-Arruda doesn't actively go around offering her advice to the newcomers on the team, there's plenty that has seeped into the collective psyche of the women on the verge of their first Olympic appearance.

It has certainly struck a chord with Hooker.

"I think with the veterans on the team, they all know that once you get to the Olympics, it's a whole different level," Hooker said. "So being the number one in the world, it really doesn't mean anything when you're in London because there are so many girls there that can play just as well as you can.

"Our main focus is just taking it day by day."


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