The inaugural season of the Athletes Unlimited Women’s Volleyball league concluded on Monday, March 29 at the Fair Park Coliseum in Dallas, Texas. Throughout February and March, 45 athletes competed in one of the first professional women’s volleyball leagues to take place in the United States. The new volleyball league shared many similarities to Athletes Unlimited’s successful inaugural softball season in 2020, which took place in a semi-bubble environment with a unique scoring system. Instead of playing on a single team throughout the season, players were drafted to a new team each week. Instead of coaches, each team had a team captain. Players who earned the top four ranks at the end of a week were selected to be captains the following week. The scoring system in the league allowed players to earn points for winning both matches and sets. Additionally, players earned individual points for aces, assists, blocks, digs, kills, and passes, while they lost points for errors. After every match, players voted for three of their fellow players to earn bonus MVP points. At the end of the season, the player with the most points, Jordan Larson, became the Athletes Unlimited champion. The three runner ups earned medals, and an additional Defensive Player of the Year award was given.
For the nearly 40 American athletes in the league, the opportunity to play professionally in the United States came at an unprecedented time, during which several leagues and their ensuing Olympic aspirations were put on hold due to the pandemic. Prior to this year, there had been only a few attempts to launch professional women’s volleyball in the United States, all of which were unsuccessful. The new Athletes Unlimited League was the first time in nearly two decades that professional women’s volleyball has been played in the continental United States. While there are two women’s leagues in Puerto Rico, nearly all athletes in the new league have played professionally abroad in several countries across Asia and Europe. The league also features athletes from Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, and Uzbekistan.
After five weeks of competition, outside hitter Jordan Larson was crowned league champion with a total of 4,569 points. Larson captained a team during each of the final four weeks of the season. Despite never having the opportunity to play professionally in the United States, Larson has competed internationally since 2009 after a decorated college career at the University of Nebraska. She is a member of the United States National team and has won two Olympic medals. As one of the most experienced players in the league, Larson’s win is unsurprising thanks to her dominant offensive skills. Larson also won the most total MVP points throughout the season.
Earning second place in the league was Bethania De La Cruz. De La Cruz totaled an impressive 3,690 points, though nearly 1,000 points behind Larson. Like Larson, De La Cruz is also an outside hitter. De La Cruz, a 23-time medalist with the Dominican Republic Women’s National team, has also played professionally for many years. De La Cruz scored in the top four every week and captained a team during the final four weeks of the season. The success of both De La Cruz and Larson on offense will be exciting to watch at the Olympics this summer as both their national teams have qualified, and they may face each other as opponents.
Brie King, a setter, finished in third place after De La Cruz with 3,675 points. King is yet another offensive player to find success in the league. Though King has only played professionally and with the Canadian National team since 2019, she is an example of how younger players, who don’t boast resumes like Larson and De La Cruz, can succeed in this league with its unique scoring system. King captained a team during the first and fifth weeks of play.
Aury Cruz, an outside hitter, earned fourth place with 3,582 points. Cruz is another experienced player in the league and has played internationally for several years since completing a successful collegiate career at the University of Florida in 2003. Cruz’s MVP points were second only to Larson’s. As the four highest-scoring athletes in the league were all offensive players, the league may need to consider an adjustment to the scoring system in future seasons so defensive players can succeed as well.
Aside from the top four medalists, Nomaris Vélez Agosto was awarded Defensive Player of the Year. Vélez Agosto is a libero and finished in sixteenth place. While offensive players, particularly outside hitters, were the most successful in earning spots in the top four, the Defensive Player of the Year award gave defensive players an opportunity to compete for success in the league.
After a successful first season, Athletes Unlimited will launch a second season of women’s volleyball in 2022, where athletes will continue to play with the non-traditional individualized scoring system. This unique opportunity for athletes will continue to allow women’s professional sports to thrive nationally. Until next season, many of this season’s athletes will play together or against each other at the Olympics or in other professional leagues internationally.