Bethania De La Cruz was the 2021 runner-up to Jordan Larson, who is absent this season. (Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited)

The second season of Athletes Unlimited Volleyball begins Wednesday night, and there is plenty to be excited about as athletes new and old take the court in Dallas.

Bethania De La Cruz, the runner-up to Jordan Larson in last year’s inaugural AU Volleyball season, returns for a second shot at the title. She’ll be up against many exciting newcomers who could challenge for the top spot. Here are the key storylines to follow as the season gets underway.

Can Bethania De La Cruz win it all?

De La Cruz is AU’s top returner and the favorite to earn the crown in Season 2, especially with Larson missing the season while playing overseas in Italy.

De La Cruz, a native of the Dominican Republic, will have competition in the form of powerhouse returners Karsta Lowe, who finished fifth last season, and Aury Cruz, who finished fourth. Lowe led the league in kills with 230, and De La Cruz was third with 193. A mere 108 points separated Cruz and De La Cruz on last year’s leaderboard, while Lowe finished just 16 points behind Cruz to make it a tight race at the top.

Newcomers like Carli Lloyd and Alisha Glass Childress will also look to disrupt the leaderboard. Glass Childress was recognized as Team USA’s best setter during their run to the bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics and has come out of retirement to join Athletes Unlimited. While it might take some time for Glass Childress to back into game shape, she’ll undoubtedly be hungry to win as she returns to the court. Lloyd, a dominant setter in her own right, was named MVP of the 2015 Pan Am Games MVP after helping lead Team USA to a gold medal. A 2016 bronze medalist along with Glass Childress, Lloyd most recently played with professional club Pomí Casalmaggiore in Italy.

How will the inaugural draftees fare?

Of the nine athletes selected in the inaugural AU College Volleyball Draft in December, two have signed on to play in the league’s second season: Lauren Stivrins and Dani Drews.

Stivrins joins the league from Nebraska, where she won a national championship as a redshirt freshman in 2017. In the national title match against Florida, she tallied nine kills on a .316 hitting average. A three-time AVCA All-American (2018, 2020 First Team; 2019 Second Team), Stirvrins finished her five-year college career with 1,236 kills and 547 total blocks.

To make an impression in her rookie season, Stivrins will look to outperform other middle blockers on the AU roster. That group is headlined by Lianna Sybeldon, who finished 11th last season, Taylor Morgan, Jenna Rosenthal and Ronika Stone.

Drews, an outside hitter, finished her career at Utah as the program’s all-time leader in career kills (2,268). As a fifth-year senior in 2021, Drews led the Pac-12 with 5.24 kills per set and 5.80 points per set and finished the season with 545 kills, 32 aces and 273 digs. She is the only player in school history to reach 2,000 career kills and 1,000 digs.

Drews will be up against a competitive group of outside hitters that includes De La Cruz, Cruz, Leah Edmond, Lindsay Stalzer and Deja McClendon, who finished sixth on last year’s leaderboard.

AU Volleyball’s second season gets underway Wednesday at 6 p.m. ET on AU’s YouTube channel.

Emma Hruby is an associate editor at Just Women’s Sports.