(Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited)

Bethania De La Cruz entered her second Athletes Unlimited Volleyball season last month on a mission. She wouldn’t have 2021 inaugural champion Jordan Larson standing in her way, but she would have to overcome new challengers to one-up her runner-up finish from last season.

De La Cruz surged to the top of the leaderboard about halfway through the season and gained separation from her contenders in the final week to win the AU crown with a league-record 4,652 points.

The outside hitter from the Dominican Republic also led the league with 233 kills and 18 service aces, both of which surpassed her 2021 season totals.

“We had new players coming into our league,” De La Cruz said over the phone Monday. “And so I knew that I needed to take another approach in so many ways, but I made sure that I executed every game.”

Some of those newcomers found their way toward the top of the leaderboard this year. Dani Drews led the league in Week 1 and again in Week 3 before De La Cruz assumed control and never looked back. Drews ended up in third place. Natalia Valentin-Anderson took second with 3,337 points and a league-leading 543 assists. Cassidy Lichtman and Nootsara Tomkom, who was just behind Valentin-Anderson with 533 assists, finished fourth and fifth.

In all, half of the top-10 finishers were playing their first AU season. And many of those who returned improved upon their performances from last season.

Lichtman jumped from 24th to fourth place. Sheilla Castro, despite playing only four weeks of the season, finished eighth and with a higher points total than she had last year.

All of the athletes, De La Cruz said, benefited from having fans in attendance after last year’s pandemic-fueled bubble season.

“We played for the fans, and so for the public to be there, it brought such a big emotion for us, every match that we played,” she said. “We were able to see the great talent that this game brings like Dani Drews, who just excelled very well, and other players, we were able to see their talent and what they were able to bring to the league.”

Like other AU mothers, De La Cruz was also able to have her son, 12-year-old Fer, with her this season, providing her with a sense of comfort and normalcy during the five-week competition.

“It was a really great atmosphere, as well as experience, for him and me,” she said. “He was not only able to be with me at all times, but he was able to be around the game, get to know our players, get to know and learn about the game of volleyball and be around this great atmosphere.”

Every week under AU’s unique points system, the leaderboard shifts and players change teams. Elected captains select their teams for the three-game weekly series in a draft.

The format makes winning the AU season especially challenging. On top of having to form a draft strategy, players approach each week with a different game plan based on who their teammates are.

De La Cruz excelled under the pressure this season. Not only did she set a points record as AU champion, she also earned a league-leading 13 MVP honors and set records in single-match leaderboard points (477), single-match kills (27) and single-match aces (four).

De La Cruz, 34, found something special in each of the five groups she took the court with this season. She remembers her Week 2 team, in particular, and the symbolism of players from varying backgrounds coming together for a common goal.

“We had six players from different countries out there playing together as one, and that was really great and special for me,” she said.

“One thing that I really like is that I was able to create a great strategy and become successful this season.”

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