RIO 2016

Iowa-bred Kayla Banwarth clutch in US volleyball win

Joe Rexrode

RIO DE JANEIRO — It was the moment of the match, an extended volley, the Americans and the Japanese both extending themselves — and one of the smallest Americans asserting herself.

United States libero Kayla Banwarth (2) reacts Sunday, Aug. 14 after a point against China in a preliminary round Group B volleyball match at Maracanazinho during the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Like a shortstop diving into the hole to snare a baseball destined for the outfield, Kayla Banwarth launched herself at a volleyball destined for the floor of rocking Maracanazinho arena. Somehow, her left arm not only made contact, but kept the ball in play for an eventual U.S. spike and point.

“It literally, like, gave me the chills,” teammate Rachael Adams said of the play.

Another teammate, Kim Hill, summed up Banwarth succinctly. “Yeah, she’s crazy.”

Banwarth, of Dubuque, is the U.S. libero, or defensive specialist, and a leader whose recent experience in coaching has enhanced her game. She’s also a highlight-reel hog.

That was one of three such diving plays in the U.S. sweep of Japan in Tuesday’s quarterfinals, pushing the top-ranked Americans ever closer to a potential gold-medal showdown with Brazil. They will take on Russia or Serbia in Thursday’s semifinal.

“A lot of it is about being at the right place at the right time,” said Banwarth, 27, who, in her Olympic debut, is trying to lead Team USA to its first gold in women’s indoor volleyball. “Having good reads, being good with your eyes and having to finish the play.”

And, often, with a little flair. The 5-foot-10 Banwarth has some of that, to go with her obvious vocal command when she’s on the floor.

“It kind of is an adrenaline thing,” she said of those plays, including the “pancake” dig in which a ball is mere inches from the floor when she gets to it.

“When she makes plays, it makes everyone want to jump on and tag along and make plays with her,” Adams said. “She drives our defense.”

Banwarth did the same as a star at Nebraska, and she has been the starting U.S. libero since 2013. She helped get ready for these Games by assisting with the Pepperdine men’s team this year. That experience has helped Banwarth “see the game a little bit more strategically,” she said.

“It maybe helps me be in those spots on defense so I can make those plays,” she said. “I’m definitely seeing the translation there.”

And, like the rest of Team USA, she’s hearing the noise as the tournament field is whittled. Brazil won gold in 2008 in Beijing and 2012 in London, and if Tuesday’s atmosphere is any indication, a gold-medal match between the Americans and Brazilians would yield an excessively loud — and for Team USA, hostile — environment on Saturday.

Banwarth’s family told her there are microphones scattered around the stands to enhance the noise, and the Americans are already used to the fact that “the only time people cheer for us is when we’re in America,” she said.

“So yeah, it’s gonna be gnarly,” Banwarth said of a possible Brazil showdown. “But one step at a time.”

Part of her job is making sure the rest of her team stays in the moment. Another part of her job is handling the big moments on the floor — the loud moments.

She’s the silencer.

“She will fly around and make those kinds of plays, and that’s inspiring for her teammates,” U.S. coach Karch Kiraly said. “She’s not the tallest player by any means, but she sure plays big.”