As the 2021 Volleyball Nations League (VNL) winds down and the teams for the 2020 Olympic Games are getting finalized, the players are preparing for Tokyo.
The young athletes have no idea what to expect, but they are bringing in their fresh outlook and creative plays to the court. The veterans are cool, calm and collected as they set their sights on making it to the podium this year.
An extra year meant extra touches and more playing time, but these players are restless and ready to compete. So who are some new and noteworthy players to look out for? Who’s coming back for another chance to secure the Gold?
Below are some of our top picks for the best players to watch during the indoor volleyball event at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Our experts tell us who they are excited to watch
Meet the Pro – Ci Michel
Ci Michel played college volleyball for the University of Miami and went on to play for pro clubs across Europe and for Great Britain in the 2012 London Olympic Games. Today, Ci is still playing volleyball, having been involved in the inaugural Athletes Unlimited Volleyball League in the USA and is a content creator, providing aspiring players and fans tips & insight via her YouTube channel and various podcasts.
Meet the Pro – Kyla Richey
Kyla retired from professional volleyball in 2021 after a long career that saw her play professionally around the world and star for Canada for over 13 years, including 3 World Championships. Married to fellow Canadian international Rudy Verhoeff they have turned their talents to launching a winery, Valley Commons in their native British Columbia.
Meet the Pro – Marisa Field
Middle blocker Marisa Field was a teammate of Kyla Rickey’s at club and country. Her professional career lasted over a decade with stints around Europe and in Asia.
Debutants looking for success in their first Olympics
USA / Setter
Jordyn Poulter is a young player with a very long list of achievements and already has three gold medals under her belt: two from the FIVB Nations League and one from the Pan-American Cup. Poulter has played for Team USA since 2018 as a setter after a very successful college career at Illinois. She was in the top three for best setters at the 2021 VNL tournament and is looking really confident after USA won that whole tournament.
Japan / Outside Hitter
Ai Kurogo is one to watch on the Japan women’s national team because she’s not only a great outside hitter, but she comes in clutch in the backrow with her digs and serves as well. She led the 2021 VNL tournament in diges with 28 digs and only five errors. She also came in second for serves in that same tournament. Japan has some great servers on their team with Koga and now Kurogo, so watch out as they take the court in their home country.
Turkey / Opposite
Ebrar Karakurt is a big personality on the court, not just because of her bright pink hair at the 2021 VNL tournament, but because of her massive attacks and long, powerful limbs. She’s been playing for the Turkey women’s national team since 2018 and has helped them win a silver medal at the 2018 FIVB Volleyball Women’s Nations League and at the 2019 Women’s European Championship. At only 21 years old, she’s looking like a great addition to the rotation as an opposite.
Japan / Outside Hitter
Ran Takahashi is a 19-year-old playing for the Japanese national team and is said to be the next Ishikawa, the captain of the Japan men’s national team. This young gun is an explosive outside hitter straight out of Higashiyama High School, where he led his high school team to the 2020 All Japan Intercollegiate Volleyball Championship, where they received the runner-up position and Takahashi took home the “Best Scorer” award. He made his national team debut at the 2021 VNL tournament, where he ended up in the top 20 for best attackers overall. He’s got a lot of potential and it will be fun to see what he does during these Olympics.
Iran / Opposite
Saber Kazemi is only 22 years old but has been playing on the Iran men’s national team since 2018. Kazemi is a force on the right side, with powerful hits and big blocks. He was toward the top of the leaderboard at the 2021 VNL competition in top scorers, so his ability to convert his plays to points is something to watch out for.
Italy / Outside Hitter
Alessandro Michieletto is the son of a volleyball player, Riccardo Michieletto, who was a force in the club volleyball world, winning many tournaments in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Since volleyball runs in his blood, Michieletto is someone to watch on the outside. At 19, he doesn’t have the professional experience as the older players, but he still has the skills to compete with the best of the best, so it will be exciting to watch Michieletto step onto the Olympic stage for the first time this year.
Veterans indoor volleyball players coming back to the Olympic Games
Dominican Republic / Libero
Brenda Castillo stood out in this year’s VNL after leading the pack in digs. When you watch her play, it seems like nothing can touch the ground. She stands at just 1.67m tall, but her quickness and ability to read the ball makes her an unstoppable libero for the Domincan Republic women’s national team. She helped her team land in sixth place in the 2021 VNL, an improvement from last year when they ended up in eighth place. She’s been playing for Dominican Republic since 2007 and has a great, experienced team behind her this year, so don’t count them out just yet.
China / Outside Spiker
Zhu Ting is an outside hitter and the captain for the China women’s national volleyball team. She helped lead her team to the gold medal at the 2016 Olympics where she scored 33 points in their semifinal match against the Netherlands, earning her the No. 3 spot on the all-time top scorers list in a single match in the Olympic games. She is a huge asset on the outside, winning multiple awards in the 2019 FIVB World Cup including Most Valuable Player and Best Outside Spiker. Ting is one to watch at this year’s Olympic Games as she chases down another gold medal.
Brazil / Opposite
Tandara Caixeta is a veteran opposite hitter for the strong, experienced Brazil women’s national volleyball team. She’s been playing for this team for a decade now and was part of the 2012 Olympic team that took the Gold for Brazil. Caixeta was one of the top scorers overall in the 2021 VNL and is looking really good going into the Olympics this year.
Russia / Opposite
Maxim Mikhaylov is one of the older players on the Russia men’s national volleyball team, but age is just a number when it comes to Mikhaylov’s playing ability. This opposite hitter has helped Russia win seven gold medals since he started playing for them in 2008, including two European Championships and the 2012 Olympic Games. Even after being out for the 2013 and 2014 seasons due to injuries, Mikhaylov’s playing ability is still consistent and powerful, and he’s able to convert his plays into points, whether that’s in the form of an attack, serve or block.
France / Outside Hitter
Earvin N’Gapeth is a big name in France, not just because of his ability to score points, but also because of his explosive personality. He likes to talk a little smack to the opposing team and he’s able to back it up with his aggressive swings. N’Gapeth can sometimes be a lazy back row player, not moving his feet to get to the ball, but his back row attacks are unstoppable, so that makes up for it. N’Gapeth also seems to play much better in international play, rather than club play, so he will be one to watch as France takes the court in Tokyo.
Bartosz Kamil Kurek
Poland / Outside Hitter
Bartosz Kamil Kurek is a great player out of Poland who has a massive swing and an equally massive presence on the outside. This will be his third Olympics and this year, Poland is looking like a force that can take the Gold this year. Kurek has many accolades under him including a world championship, a gold medal at the 2012 FIVB World League and a silver medal at the 2011 FIVB World Cup. We’ll see if he can add an Olympic medal to his collection this year.
Who are some of your favorite indoor players to watch? Are there any players we missed that you’re excited to watch this year?