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AU Volleyball in Week 2: Bethania De La Cruz knocking on the door

Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited

With the first week of Athletes Unlimited Volleyball Season 2 complete, Week 2 begins Wednesday night with some fresh faces atop the leaderboard.

The first week delivered plenty of action and movement as players adjusted to the beginning of the season. Bethania De La Cruz currently sits second on the leaderboard with 800 points, 28 points behind newcomer Dani Drews.

Natalia Valentin-Anderson is in third place with 667 points, while Drews’ fellow rookie Lauren Stivrins is fourth with 660.

The competition is tight among the top 10, with Sheilla Castro sitting just six points out of a captain’s spot with 654 points. While Drews and De La Cruz are ahead of the competition by at least 100 points, the degree of separation between the remaining eight players is slim. A total of 92 points separates third place from 10th, meaning that it’s anybody’s game in Week 2.

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

Can the newcomers keep it rolling?

There were questions in Week 1 about how Drews and Stivrins would fare against stiff competition. The answer? Quite well.

After being selected first overall in the Week 1 draft, Drews overtook fellow outside hitter Bethania De La Cruz for the league lead with 828 total points. Among her Week 1 highlights was a 410-point performance in Game 5. Drews will need to keep it up to hold off De La Cruz, who’s only 28 points behind her and has the potential to break out at any point.

Stivrins, meanwhile, grabbed the fourth and final captain’s spot with 660 points while on Team De La Cruz. She had a solid performance in Game 2, racking up 308 total points off of eight kills, four blocks and three digs. She sits just six points ahead of Sheilla Castro, who will be looking to make the jump while playing for Team De La Cruz this week.

Valentin-Anderson also had a strong first week with AU, highlighted by a 294-point, 43-assist performance in Game 5. She currently leads the league with 107 total assists.

While all three newcomers had a good Week 1, they also were not charged with selecting their teammates. This week, each of them took a first stab at the Athletes Unlimited draft. Their volleyball knowledge will be tested, and their decisions could lead to some shifting on the leaderboard.

What about Sheilla Castro?

After finishing 19th on the leaderboard last season with 2,350 points, Castro is off to a hot start with 654 total points in Week 1. That number is over a quarter of her total production last season and, if she continues on the same pace, she could improve upon last season’s performance by nearly 1,000 points.

She could also make a run at a captain’s spot, as she currently sits just six points behind Stivrins in fourth place and 13 points behind Valentin-Anderson in third place.

Already, Castro has bettered at least one of her performances from last season, recording 11 digs in Game 5,after tying last season’s high the night before with 10. She’s also excelled on her serve, recording four total serving aces, tying her for the lead.

A two-time Olympic gold medalist for Brazil, Castro has experience in high-pressure situations and will be one to watch out for in the weeks to come.

What will it take for Bethania De La Cruz to overtake the top spot?

In short, not a lot. De La Cruz bested her Week 1 totals from last year by 50 points. If she stays on track, she could increase her point total by over 300 points. While Drews got better as the games went on, De La Cruz was more consistent in her point scoring.

De La Cruz also has a high ceiling, having set AU career highs of 21 kills and 13 digs in a single game. Her highest kill total was 13 against Team Lowe, and she matched her dig total with 13 against Team Cruz.

Look for it to be a battle between the two as Athletes Unlimited enters its second week. De La Cruz could have a slight advantage given its experience with the AU draft system. She also has Sheilla Castro as the only carryover from her Week 1 team, and she will be looking to make a run at a captain’s spot of her own. But De La Cruz lost Lauren Stivrins to a captain’s spot and will be working with an entirely new group of players, which could lend Drews the advantage.

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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