COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Dec. 15, 2018) – Kelsey Robinson (Manhattan Beach, California/Bartlett, Illinois) adapted to her new role as libero for the U.S. Women’s National Team on the fly in 2018, while middle Foluke Akinradewo (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) proved to be a consistent, high-level performer Team USA benefited from during the 2018 campaign.
For their efforts, Robinson and Akinradewo have been selected as the 2018 USA Volleyball Female Indoor Co-Players of the Year. Outside hitter Sarah Wilhite Parsons (Eden Prairie, Minnesota) was tabbed as the 2018 USA Volleyball Female Indoor Most Improved Player of the Year.
Robinson and Akinradewo played key roles in Team USA winning the inaugural VNL and the $1 million top prize. The U.S. went 17-2 in the tournament, including a 10-match win streak during the preliminary round. At one point, Team USA won nine straight matches in straight sets with the starting lineup consistently shifting.
During the VNL Final Six, the Americans avenged their only losses during the 15-match round-robin preliminary phase. The U.S. overcame a two-set deficit to defeat Turkey, then handled Serbia in a four-set victory. In the semifinal, Team USA defeated host China in four sets to advance to the finals. In the third meeting between the U.S. and Turkey during the VNL, Team USA again rallied to defeat Turkey in five sets in the VNL gold-medal match.
Team USA finished fifth at the FIVB World Championship held in Japan. The Americans opened the tournament with seven consecutive victories, but four consecutive losses dropped them out of contention for the title. The U.S. came back to defeat host Japan to finish the World Championship in fifth place.
Robinson put the team above herself during 2018, and ultimately it proved beneficial for Team USA and herself. She entered the year in her typical outside hitter role, but two matches into the VNL, she switched to libero to shore up the reception and backrow defense.
“This was a special year for Kelsey,” U.S. Women’s National Team Head Coach Karch Kiraly said. “Normally an outside hitter, she stepped up in the libero position because our team needed help, and quickly played a pivotal role in USA’s gold-medal effort at the first-ever VNL. Not only did she step up, she embraced the challenge with gusto, asking for extra reps and challenging herself to be the best she could. Her willingness to take on a new role raised the selflessness quotient on a team already loaded with it, and those kinds of behaviors make teams better, period.”
“It’s an honor to be named co-player of the year, especially alongside such an incredible teammate as Foluke,” Robinson said. “I’m very grateful to receive the award.”
Robinson’s transition to libero provided immediate positive results for Team USA – a 16-1 record in the VNL as the starting libero and leading the Americans to gold. Robinson held a .531 reception efficiency in the VNL, totaling 205 excellent receptions on 343 chances and just 23 faults. She ranked third in the VNL for Best Receiver. Robinson added 2.79 digs per set in the VNL, which ranked fifth-best among all players.
Robinson averaged 2.98 digs per set in the FIVB World Championship. She added a .542 reception efficiency after being credited with 113 excellent receptions on 192 chances. Robinson ranked second in both Best Digger and Best Receiver during the World Championship.
For the year, Robinson started 29 matches and played in 106 sets. She averaged 2.87 digs per set with a .535 reception efficiency (318-32-535). In her first two matches of the year as a starting outside, Robinson claimed five kills, two blocks and one ace for eight individual points.
“I’ve always wanted to be a part of USA volleyball in any way that I possibly could,” Robinson said. “When Karch asked me to play libero, I knew that if this was a way that I could help give to the team, that I would learn to do it at the highest level I possibly could. It wasn’t always easy and there were a lot of times that I failed, but fortunately, I have an amazing staff and group of teammates that helped me every day. I’m grateful for the process and for the lessons learned this season.”
Robinson said 2018 provided the U.S. Women’s National Team an opportunity to see how good it can be, and at the same time, where it can build upon during 2019 as it works toward 2020 Olympic qualification.
“I think we learned how good we are and how good we can be moving forward,” Robinson said. “It was a great year having everyone back together, but I’m excited to be able to grow and improve much more in 2019.”
Akinradewo provided Team USA leadership and consistent performances throughout 2018. Akinradewo averaged 2.09 kills and 0.53 blocks per set as part of an overall 2.72 points per set average. She produced a .411 hitting efficiency (157-28-314) with a 50.0 kill percent after starting 19 matches with 75 sets played.
“While I feel undeserving, I’m very humbled and honored to graciously accept this award,” Akinradewo said. “I’m surrounded by exceptional athletes and individuals on a daily basis while playing for the U.S. Women’s National Team, and it means a lot to be selected amongst my peers.”
“One of the most admirable qualities in sports is high-level performance over time,” Kiraly said. “Foluke has been so consistently good for USA, for so many years, it’s understandable for someone to take it for granted – but we don’t. Not only does she maintain that performance, tournament after tournament, but she makes people around her better – and she’s a shining example of how to immerse yourself in the daily business of pursuing mastery, no matter what obstacles the new day brings.”
During the VNL, Akinradewo started 11 of 19 matches as the lineup shifted considerable from match to match. She contributed 2.41 points per set with a .389 hitting efficiency (73-15-149) over the course of 41 sets played. Akinradewo tallied 22 blocks during the tournament for a 0.54 average. She started all four matches during the VNL Final Six and scored a dozen points in the gold-medal win over Turkey.
Akinradewo made her presence felt even more during the World Championship as her points average increased to 3.09 per set. Her offense generated 2.47 kills per set with a .430 hitting efficiency (84-13-165) while starting eight of 11 matches. Akinradewo was steady at the net with 0.53 blocks per set during the World Championship, and her limited back-row time resulted in a 0.56 dig average.
While opponents are always changing up their defenses to try and stop her, Akinradewo believes her consistency stems from the work she puts in before the matches and the proper mindset.
“I’m a firm believer that confidence is earned rather than a right,” Akinradewo said. “I try to practice the way I want to play in matches, which ultimately helps me prepare for the ‘big moments.’ Defenses are constantly changing their tactics against me, so it’s important to have the ability to vary my attacks and be confident in my decision-making.”
Akinradewo feels 2018 showed that Team USA is a power to be reckoned with on the court, but it also taught the team there is ample room for improvement following the World Championship.
“We learned that we’re not good enough—yet,” Akinradewo said. “We had a lot of highs and lows in 2018 and it’s important that we take both the positives and negatives as learning experiences for the coming year. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but rather build on where we left off. When our all-around play is consistent, we’re an unstoppable force. We need to keep holding ourselves to a high standard and continue being learners.”
Sarah Wilhite Parsons
Wilhite Parsons played in all three tournaments the U.S. competed in during the 2018 campaign, and Kiraly noted her improvements throughout the year while battling injuries.
“I’m incredibly honored to receive the most improved award,” Wilhite Parsons said. “I feel as though each of my teammates deserves this award because everyone comes to practice with a growth mindset, wanting to get better and learn. It’s an amazing environment to be a part of and has pushed me to become the best that I can be every single day.”
“Though Sarah got very few opportunities to compete with USA in her first season (2017), her dedication to learning did not waver,” Kiraly said. “This season that dedication remained fierce – while fighting through injuries, she found ways to improve every facet of her game and helped lead USA to a Pan Am Cup gold medal. She also has a commitment to helping her team in any way possible, so at World Championships, she found a new way, substituting in to give USA a lift during moments of duress.”
Wilhite Parsons was a stabilizing force for Team USA during the Pan American Cup in which the Americans captured gold. She started five of the six Pan Am Cup matches where she averaged 2.89 points per set. Wilhite Parsons converted 35 percent of her attacks into kills at the Pan Am Cup while adding 2.05 digs per set and a .395 reception efficiency (39 excellent on 86 chances and five errors).
Prior to the Pan Am Cup, Wilhite Parsons was on the U.S. roster for 12 of the team’s 15 preliminary round matches during the VNL. She played in eight VNL sets, registering six kills on 21 attacks, one block and one ace. Wilhite Parsons added a 0.75 dig average in her limited action, along with a .400 reception efficiency.
During the World Championship, Wilhite Parsons was primarily a serving and defensive specialist playing in 44 of the 47 sets. She served 10 aces during the World Championship for a 0.23 average – an impressive total as she mainly took one rotation at the service line per set. Wilhite Parsons also contributed five digs and a .438 reception efficiency in her limited action. She racked up eight points in a start against Trinidad & Tobago, which included for aces.
“2018 was a year of amazing opportunities and I can’t wait to get back in the gym in 2019 and continue the process of learning alongside the best teammates and coaches,” Wilhite