DALLAS (WTAJ) — Deja McClendon hasn’t played volleyball in the United States since her time at Penn State in 2013. After two national championships and playing in pro leagues around the world, the outside hitter has taken on a new adventure: being a part of the only pro indoor women’s volleyball league in the country.
Athletes Unlimited launched its inaugural volleyball season Feb. 27, with five weeks of matches featuring 45 of the best volleyball players around in Dallas. This comes after the organization’s successful softball season in 2020.
“It honestly is surreal,” McClendon said. “It’s something we always talked about and we’ve tried before, but this is the only one right now and it is amazing to see just how fast our Penn State fans have bounced back.”
Other notable Nittany Lions in the league include middle hitter Nia Grant, who finished out her collegiate volleyball career in 2014 with a national championship title after defeating BYU. The roster has been rounded out by current and former members of the USA National Women’s team: Olympic medalist Jordan Larson, Kristen Tupac and Molly McCage to name a few. Bethania de la Cruz of the Dominican Republican also joins the league, who led her team to a gold medal at the 2019 Pan American Games.
With such a talented pool, Athletes Unlimited’s model of play puts them all to the test. The league is broken down into four separate teams and every week, the rosters change. In this league, the players are calling the shots.
The top performers of the week prior become team captains, who then are able to select who they want through a draft streamed on Facebook Live. Each team plays three games per week before the dynamic changes all over again.
“When we first got here we had a couple of scrimmages where we were changing teams like every day, which is crazy when it’s a game that’s based upon your connection with the players next to you and your connection with the setter,” McClendon said. “As we move further along, people are drafting girls that they’ve played with already or that they’re starting to get to know or that they have a good connection with and so it’s coming a little bit easier.”
How exactly do they break down top performers? Instead of solely focusing on team points, this form of volleyball has individual stats at the forefront, where every move can bump you up or down in a leaderboard that moves in real-time as fans watch the game.
Every single match will have three sets. Similar to regular volleyball, a team must reach 25 points and lead by at least two points to win the set. Heading into a different territory, AU uses a “total score” to determine match winners. Here is the example used on their website:
“For example, the Gold Team loses the first two sets 25-23 and 25-23 to the Blue Team, but wins the last set, 25-17. The Gold Team would win the overall match points because they had the larger overall score, 71-67”
If the total score is tied at the end of three sets, they enter overtime, called a “Golden Set” where a team must score five points and win by at least two points to win the entire match.
Members of AU’s Unlimited Club (a subscription-based membership for AU content) each select three players they think had standout performances. The three players that get the most votes will have points added to their total individual points, which we will dive into in a minute.
MVP 1: 60 points
MVP 2: 40 points
MVP 3: 20 points
Every move a player makes can work out for them or against them in this league. While mistakes can be mentally erased after a successful team performance, an individual’s performance can drastically alter their rank on the leaderboard after just one match.
SERVING: A service ace is +12 points and a service error is -8 points.
ATTACKS: A kill is +8 points and an attack error is -12 points.
DIGS: Each successful dig is +5 points.
PASSING: Each good pass after a serve is +2 points while an error is -12 points. A pass that leads to a kill is an assist and an additional point for the passer.
BLOCKS: Each block is +12 points.
With the gear shift to individual performance, McClendon said it is a huge change in the way they think as volleyball players.
“What I found has been working for me is to forget the individual stats, forget what I’m doing and focus on what my team’s doing and what my team needs,” she said. “And how I can push us forward, how I can keep the energy high. Those things tend to naturally bring you individual points.”
As the league prepares to head into Week 4, here is a look at the leaderboard. Larson was previously at the number one spot but has dropped down to second place after De La Cruz’s performance in Week 3.
PLAYING FOR A CAUSE
Each player has selected a charity to support during the season, where the Give Lively Foundation will make a grant equal to 50% of the athlete’s bonus to their nonprofit. McClendon chose to support Bald Girls Do Lunch, an organization that supports girls and women with alopecia. McClendon was diagnosed with alopecia when she was 12 years old and decided to shave her head in 2019.
“It’s tough for a lot of women,” she said. “I had the opportunity to choose that I wanted to shave my head and I went through that process kind of alone without having any other women and girls to talk to. And what Bald Girls Do Lunch does is they bring us together and give us this platform to share our stories and voices and empower each other.”
LATEST IN SPORTS
While playing in Brazil, McClendon received a message from a father who had a seven-year-old daughter with alopecia. The father noted how awesome it was for her to be so visibly and that his daughter had that type of role model. As teammates change, points accumulate and the leaderboard changes, McClendon is focused on one thing: being visible.
“I want to be that person that gives a little bit of hope to another young athlete and we’re receiving more messages like that: of people who have alopecia or people who have struggled through other issues with self-confidence,” she said. “That means the world to me and it gives me another reason to play.”
Matches for Week 4 will kick off March 20. To see where you can watch or stream the matches, visit the Athletes Unlimited “Where to watch” section.