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AU Volleyball in Week 3: Sheilla Castro having a breakout season

Sheilla Castro rises to block a shot for Team De La Cruz. (Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited)

Two weeks into Athletes Unlimited’s Volleyball season, the action is delivering on its promise. Week 3 begins Wednesday night amid continued shifts atop the leaderboard.

Bethania De La Cruz moved into first place with 1,779 total points, while last week’s leader, Dani Drews, fell to third wth 1,413 points. In between them is Karsta Lowe, who finished fifth last season, with 1,455 points. Sheilla Castro has moved into fourth with 1,319 points.

The competition remains tight atop the leaderboard, albeit a little less so than in Week 2. A few new faces have moved into the top 10, and others have simply shifted or remained in place. While De La Cruz holds a firm lead of 324 points, a mere 212 points separates fifth and 10th place.

Just Women’s Sports has a few storylines to follow as the competition resumes Wednesday.

Bethania De La Cruz secures the top spot

Bethania De La Cruz took command of the leaderboard in Week 2, though her lead is by no means safe.

De La Cruz showcased her draft savvy in Week 2, as her team helped her set the single-match kills record during their loss Friday to Team Stivrins. With 27 kills in that game, De La Cruz is now third in the league with 87 through the first two weeks of the season. Karsta Lowe is first with 94. The outside hitter also has 66 digs on the season.

Can anyone catch De La Cruz in Week 3? While it seems unlikely that she would surrender her lead given how dominant she’s looked through two weeks of play, a bad game or two could put any one of the league’s top players right back in the mix.

De La Cruz also has extra motivation on her side, looking to take care of unfinished business after finishing as runner-up to AU champion Jordan Larson last season.

The Sheilla Castro show

For the first time in her Athletes Unlimited career, Sheilla Castro is a captain.

Through just two weeks, Castro has made major improvements over last season. On Saturday, the opposite hitter posted a career-high 17 kills against Team Drews for a season-high 329 points in a single game. She added to her 654 total points in Week 1 with 653 more in Week 2.

Castro’s surge should not come as a surprise. A member of the Brazilian national team, she is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and has won eight championships while playing overseas in Brazil, Turkey and Italy.

Castro is on pace to improve upon last season’s performance by nearly 1,000 points, and if she keeps it up, she could accomplish even more than that.

Into the top 10

Two of the biggest stars in Week 2, Leah Edmond and Nomaris Vélez Agosto also entered the top 10.

Edmond recorded 200-plus points in the final two games of the week. Her best performance came Saturday, when she posted a career-high 19 kills against Team Valentin-Anderson. As she steadily climbs, Edmond already has amassed nearly half of her point total from last year. The outside hitter currently sits in eighth place, 25 points behind seventh place and fewer than 200 points behind fourth-place captain Sheilla Castro.

Vélez Agosto, the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year, has also shown improvements from last season. On Wednesday against Team Valentin-Anderson, she recorded a career-high 18 digs for Team De La Cruz.

Vélez Agosto began last season on a tear and tapered off toward the end. Her consistency will be an X-factor in the last three weeks of this AU season.

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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