Playing at home a rare treat for road-weary U.S. women’s volleyball team

John Parker

LOS ANGELES — The arena lights went down and the noise level went way up. After that, members of the U.S. women's volleyball national team heard something during introductions they have only heard once in recent memory: raucous applause.

"At first it was strange," said libero Nicole Davis, two-time Olympian. "We're not used to hearing people cheer for Team USA."

[ Photos: Meet the U.S. women's volleyball team ]

The Americans downed Bulgaria 3-1 (25-14, 18-25, 25-17, 25-21) on Monday night in front of an upbeat crowd at USC's Galen Center in the second of a three-match exhibition series before heading to the London Games. The Americans feasted on the left side of the offense as outside hitters Logan Tom (13 kills on 32 swings against just one error) and Jordan Larson (12 kills on 33 swings with three errors) led the way.

"We're trying to fine-tune the little things," said Davis, who finished with 17 digs, "because that might be the play that wins you the gold medal."

The U.S. women have never won Olympic gold but enter the London Games ranked No. 1 in the world. Part of building that resume, though, means playing away from home a lot. Many members of the Olympic team just got back from Asia, where Team USA won the FIVB World Grand Prix for the third straight time. Prior to Saturday's first round of the Bulgaria Challenge Series at Canyon High School in nearby Anaheim, the last time the women's national team played in the U.S. was July 9, 2009 in Orlando.

Options to play indoor professionally close to home are slim to nil for Americans. While several indoor professional leagues have been formed in the U.S., they've failed to gain traction compared to their international counterparts. As elite-level collegiate players who want to continue in the sport look to South America and Europe, it limits their trips back home to the states.

"You're stepping into a career path where you have to play overseas," said middle blocker and first-time Olympian Christa Harmotto, who had five blocks and four kills. "It's a difficult thing to do to start out building your life."

After the national team season - which occurs between May and October and involves friendlies and qualifying tournaments for larger biennial events all over the world - each member of Team USA takes their talents overseas to play in foreign professional leagues.

Davis has quite the passport stamp collection, having played in Azerbaijan, Poland, Turkey and most recently Italy.

"The culture is so different over there," Davis said. "Volleyball is a much bigger deal so they pack in 10,000 or 20,000 people into buildings and they bounce around like it's a soccer match."

The Italian league is considered to be the top professional league in the world but is not without its perils for Americans. Only three foreign-born players are allowed on the court at a time, which is especially difficult for a defensive specialist like the 5-foot-7 Davis, whose skills aren't as in-demand as taller players like Harmotto (6-foot-2).

"They're gonna go for a big middle or a big outside before they get to me," she said.

Monday night was especially satisfying for Davis, who starred at USC from 2000-2003, winning back-to-back NCAA national championships her junior and senior year. Back then the Women of Troy played in tiny North Gym, which seats just a few hundred people, before the Galen Center (capacity 10,258) was built.

"This is awesome; the Galen Center was promised to me during recruitment, but it never got done," Davis said. "There's no place I'd rather play our last match before London than right here."

That will come on Wednesday night before the team departs for London on Friday. Team USA opens Olympic play on Saturday, July 28 against South Korea.

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