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Cassidy Lichtman’s purpose in volleyball extends far beyond the court

(Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited)

Cassidy Lichtman understands the importance of her role as chair of the Athletes Unlimited Volleyball Player Executive Committee and a member of the league’s board. The opportunity to help change the game through a player-led league was too good for the volleyball veteran to pass up.

“When they say we’re an athlete-led organization, it’s incredibly genuine and all of the decisions really are run by the five of us,” Lichtman told Just Women’s Sports. “We have a very diverse player population. Sometimes it makes the decisions a little bit slower, but I think it makes them better in the long run.”

Lichtman, 32, was happily retired before Athletes Unlimited’s inaugural volleyball season in 2021. Returning to the court with AU was an easy decision for the outside hitter. From there, the Player Executive Committee felt like a natural fit with her motivations for joining the league in the first place.

“I felt like if somebody was finally going to make a genuine concerted effort to create professional volleyball within the U.S., I wanted to be a part of that,” Lichtman said. “And being a part of the PEC, you have a genuine hand in creating what that’s going to look like.

“It really feels like we’re all on the same side of the table and it’s not a negotiation, it’s a conversation.”

Lichtman’s run on the court has been as strong as her work off of it. After finishing the 2021 season in 24th place with 2,203 points, Lichtman has been on fire in AU’s second season. Currently fifth on the leaderboard with 2,528 points, Lichtman will serve as a captain this week in place of the absent Sheilla Castro. Entering the final week of play, she has already beaten her point total from last season.

Still, while Lichtman enjoys the competition, it’s not her main focus anymore.

“It’s at this point about what I can do to grow the sport, make it better and create opportunities within it for the next generation,” she said.

The task of shaping a new league includes outlining what its values are. When the Texas legislature proposed new laws last September that directly opposed league and player values, Lichtman said Athletes Unlimited co-founders Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros were the first ones to start the conversation about possibly moving the upcoming volleyball season away from Dallas.

“I think it says so much about the organization,” she said. “We had the venue lined up, we had hotels. Just from a business perspective, it would’ve been really difficult to move it. But they were a hundred percent ready to do that, if that was the right thing for us in the league.”

But as Lichtman outlined in an op-ed on JWS last month, after discussions with local advocacy groups, the players decided it would be more powerful for them to remain in Dallas and be a part of the effort to roll back bills targeting voting rights, youth transgender sports participation and other liberties.

“What we really thought about is, how can we live our values and express what we believe in and celebrate the stuff that we think should be celebrated?” Lichtman said.

During Texas’ first primary election of 2022, the state rejected nearly 23,000 ballots under the new, tougher voting laws. The percentage of returned mail ballots was roughly 13 percent. Anything above two percent is usually cause for concern.

“It says to me that there’s something seriously wrong with the way that the mail ballot policy is being administered,” Charles Stewart III, director of the Election Data and Science Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the Associated Press in March.

As part of a year-long voting registration campaign called “Power in My Voice,” people who attend AU volleyball games have the option to register to vote at booths located within Fair Park Coliseum.

In protest of Texas legislation limiting students’ educational opportunities, AU set up a small shop in the stadium concourse that sells books written by and about women, people of color and other marginalized communities. The goal is to lift up diverse voices and stories that have long been suppressed.

The concourse also has a wall featuring women in history who have inspired current AU athletes, including Ida B. Wells and Patsy Mink.

Lichtman’s favorite is Juanita Craft, a civil rights activist and politician who became the first Black woman in Dallas to vote in a public election. In 1967, she also played a key role in the desegregation of the Texas State Fair, held annually at Fair Park.

“There are now women all playing together, women of different races, all playing on the same court,” Lichtman said. “The fact that there’s this woman who wasn’t allowed into the Park with white people, and now she’s put up on the wall to be celebrated, I think there’s something really special in that.”

There’s also something special in being able to play in front of fans again, after the COVID-19 pandemic restricted attendance last year. With the energy and purpose surrounding this AU season, Lichtman knows she could never walk away from the sport completely.

In addition to serving on the PEC, Lichtman joined Athletes Unlimited’s Board of Governors in December. As she works to create more opportunities for women through the sport of volleyball, she’s also given thought to the legacy she hopes to leave behind.

“Volleyball is written in my soul,” she said. “I’m never going to just walk away from the sport or from the sports world.

“I love playing volleyball and I’m happy to do that. But the reason I’m here is to build something that lasts.”

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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