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Athletes Unlimited Season 2: Bethania De La Cruz versus the field

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.

New Washington Spirit Head Coach Jonatan Giráldez Arrivin DC

head coach Jonatan Giráldez
Jonatan Giráldez joins the NWSL from FC Barcelona Femení. (Ramsey Cardy/UEFA via Getty Images)

Five months after announcing that the Washington Spirit had hired Barcelona Femení coach Jonatan Giráldez as the team's new head coach, Giráldez has joined the club in Washington, DC.

Giráldez is coming off of a successful season with the Spanish side, having won UEFA Women's Champions League, Copa de la Reina, Supercopa, and Liga F in his final season to complete a lauded Quadruple.

While Giráldez was finishing out his tenure in Europe, Adrián González filled in as Spirit interim head coach. González has also seen success, leading the team to its third-place standing with a 9-3-1 record through 13 games.

“I’m thrilled to join the Spirit and begin this next chapter with the club,” Giráldez said in an official team statement. “To be part of the vision Michele Kang has for the Spirit and women’s soccer globally is an exciting opportunity.”

Giráldez has worked at Barcelona since 2019, initially coming on as an assistant coach before moving up to head coach in 2021. The team went 30-0-0 on the season under Giráldez during his first year as manager.

He brings along with him Andrés González and Toni Gordo, who will serve as the Spirit's Fitness Coach and Club Analyst, respectively.

US Track & Field Olympic Trials Touch Down in Oregon

Sha’Carri Richardson competes in the women’s 200-meter preliminary round during the USATF Outdoor Championships
Sha’Carri Richardson will have some competition this week as athletes vie for an Olympic berth. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Track & Field Trials begin on June 21st, kicking off a 10-day quest to determine who will represent the US in Paris this summer.

The crucial meet will take place in Eugene, Oregon, where the top three finishers in each event will punch their ticket to the 2024 Olympics. As with this past week's US Swimming Trials, even the most decorated athletes must work to earn their spot — and one bad performance could undermine four years of preparation.

Reigning 100-meter World Champion Sha'Carri Richardson headlines this year's field, as the 24-year-old looks to qualify for her second Olympic Games and compete in her first. Richardson is a world champion in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint, but missed the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for THC shortly after the last US Olympic Trials.

Other standouts include 400-meter Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who's currently the most decorated athlete in the active women's US Track & Field pool. McLaughlin-Levrone qualified to run in the 200-meter and 400-meter flat races alongside the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials, but opted to focus solely on her signature event.

800-meter specialist Athing Mu will also be a huge draw this week, as the Olympic gold medalist looks to shake off a lingering hamstring injury while pursuing her second Summer Games. Gold medal-winning pole vaulter Katie Moon will also attempt to qualify for her second-straight Olympic Games.

Ole Miss star McKenzie Long could be Richardson's greatest competition in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, as well as Richardson's Worlds teammate Gabby Thomas in the 200-meter. In field events, watch for Oregon senior Jaida Ross going head-to-head with reigning world champion Chase Jackson in the shot put, as both push for their first Olympic team berth.

Regardless of why you tune in, the US Olympic Trials are a perpetually thrilling and sometimes brutal qualification process. If you're able to make your way to the head of the pack, a shot at Olympic glory might just be waiting at the finish line.

Fans can catch live coverage throughout the Trials via NBC, USA, and Peacock.

Top Teams Square Off in NWSL Weekend Slate

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda
Orlando Pride, led by forward Barbra Banda, will take on Utah in this weekend's NWSL action. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the NWSL season continues, a few top-performing clubs will have a chance to boost their standings this weekend.

First-place Kansas City will travel to Providence Park to take on fifth-place Portland, as the Current look to keep their unbeaten streak intact. And in New Jersey, third-place Washington will take on fourth-place Gotham FC, with both teams attempting to extend multi-game unbeaten streaks.

A six-point gap has opened between the fifth and sixth spot on the NWSL table — with just six points also separating the league's top five. Kansas City, Orlando, Washington, Gotham, and Portland have recently proven themselves to be a cut above the rest of the competition. With eight postseason spots up for grabs and half the season behind us, a pattern is forming that indicates the playoff race could come down to spots six through eight on the NWSL table.

Of those top five teams, only Orlando faces an opponent in the bottom half of the league this weekend: The Pride will take on 14th-place Utah, who nonetheless are coming off a win — just their second of the season — over Bay FC last weekend.

But despite Kansas City and Orlando having yet to lose a game, Gotham might be the squad coming into the weekend with the most momentum.

Clutch goals from Rose Lavelle and rookie Maycee Bell gave the Bats a 2-0 midweek win over San Diego on Wednesday, in a rematch of the 2024 Challenge Cup. Gotham's unbeaten streak dates all the way back to April, as rising availability and sharpened form have honed this year's superteam into a contender.

Bottom line? As the NWSL season passes the halfway mark, some matches might begin to feel more like playoff previews than mere regular season battles.

Chelsea Gray Returns From Injury in Aces Win Over Seattle

las vegas aces chelsea gray and kelsey plum celebrate a win over the seattle storm
Gray has been sidelined with a foot injury since the 2023 WNBA Finals. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chelsea Gray made her return to the basketball court on Wednesday, helping the Aces to a 94-83 win over the Seattle Storm. 

The lauded point guard missed the first 12 games of the season, having been injured in last year’s WNBA Finals. The left foot injury caused her to miss Game 4 of the championship series, and she’s continued to rehab it through the beginning of the 2024 season. 

Her return on Wednesday was capitalized by the fact that she needed just 20 seconds to make an impact and record her first assist. While she finished with just one point, she had seven assists, four rebounds, and two blocks to go alongside it in 15:30 minutes. Gray's contributions on the night brought her career assist record up to 1,500.

"I probably went through every emotion leading up to today," Gray said after the game. "I was a little anxious all day. It's been a long time since I've been out on that court. But the fans were amazing from the time I came out to warm up to the time I checked in the game. It was a rush and a feeling I missed a lot."

It’s been a roller coaster of a season so far for Las Vegas, who have lost five of their last seven games. Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 2023, has proven herself a much-needed addition to the team’s lineup.

"Felt like my heart," Aces coach Becky Hammon said when asked how she felt hearing the crowd erupt for Gray's return. "She's the leader of our team. I thought she did a wonderful job too."

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