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.

Bethania De La Cruz was crowned the Season 2 Athletes Unlimited Volleyball Champion on Saturday, capping off a dominant showing during the five-week competition.

The outside hitter, who finished second last season, clinched the title with 4,652 points, serving as a captain for all five weeks.

De La Cruz led the league in kills with 233 and aces with 18 while notching a total of 168 digs. Posting a record 13 MVP honors on the season, De La Cruz broke the record for most leaderboard points in a single match at 477, single-match kills, firing 27, and single-match aces, posting four.

“The fact that he came here and learned a lot about the game and was with all of us together, it’s emotional for me and it motivates me to play better,” De La Cruz said of her win.

Natalia Valentin-Anderson, who led the league in assists, finished behind De La Cruz with 3,337 points, with Dani Drews and Cassidy Lichtman rounding out the top four.

Athletes Unlimited also named the inaugural Athletes Unlimited Volleyball Dream Team honorees, voted on by players and facilitators. Opposite Sheilla Castro, setter Valentin-Anderson, libero Morgan Hentz, middle blockers Molly McCage and Jenna Rosenthal, and outside hitters De La Cruz and Drews were all named to the team.

In addition to her Dream Team honor, Hentz was also selected as the GEICO Defensive Player of the Year. Hentz led the league in digs with 229, breaking Kristen Tupac’s previous single-season digs record of 200. The libero was awarded a $5,000 prize for the distinction.

Athletes Unlimited Volleyball will return for its third season in 2023.

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.

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.

Athletes Unlimited is welcoming a new wave of players for the second season of its volleyball league this spring. The season opens on March 16 and will run through April 16 in Dallas.

Among those joining the league are United States Olympians Carli Lloyd and Alisha Glass Childress.

“I’m fired up to have the opportunity to stay in the U.S. and play again, especially within a league that has an emphasis on supporting not just the athlete but the whole person,” Lloyd said as part of Thursday’s announcement. “The fact that Athletes Unlimited has stood by me as a new mom coming back to compete has been very refreshing and having this league as another option for professional volleyball players is exciting!”

Lloyd is a 2016 Olympic bronze medalist as a member of the U.S. national team. In 2015, she was named the Pan Am Games MVP, helping lead Team USA to a gold medal. Glass Childress, also a 2016 bronze medalist, being named Team USA’s best setter.

Returning to AU volleyball are 2021 runner-up and Dominican Republic Olympian Bethania De La Cruz and fifth-place finisher Karsta Lowe. Taylor Sandbothe, Lindsay Staizer and Erica Wilson — who finished last season 21st, 12th and 29th, respectively — will also suit up again.

“We are thrilled to host our second year of professional indoor women’s volleyball in Dallas and cannot wait to welcome fans to Fair Park Coliseum to watch 44 of the best players in the world, including newcomers Carli Lloyd, Aleshia Glass Childress and returning 2021 runner-up Bethania De La Cruz compete for a championship,” said Athletes Unlimited CEO Jon Patricof.

Jordan Larson, who was previously expected to return for season 2, will instead be playing overseas in Italy.

FOX Sports will air 12 live matches on FS2, beginning with a doubleheader on March 18. CBS Sports Network will broadcast seven matches, while Bally Sports will be home to four on its platform.

Full roster:

  • Carli Lloyd
  • Alisha Glass Childress
  • Bethania De La Cruz
  • Karsta Lowe
  • Taylor Sandbothe
  • Lindsay Stalzer
  • Erica Wilson
  • Lauren Stivrins
  • Yizhi Xue
  • Kalei Mau
  • Falyn Fonoimoana
  • Natalia Valentin-Anderson
  • Emmaline Willis
  • Naya Crittenden
  • Jamie Peterson
  • Naomi Santos-Lamb
  • Sha’Dare McNeal
  • Rachel Fara
  • Taylor Fricano
  • Hana Lishman
  • Niki Withers