U.S. women’s hockey faces test after Decker’s tournament-ending injury

In the U.S. women's hockey team's first game of the Winter Olympics, Brianna Decker sustained a tournament-ending injury. How will the defending gold medalists respond?
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Less than ten minutes into the first period of their first game, the U.S. women’s hockey team encountered what could be their biggest test of the 2022 Winter Olympics.

An awkward collision between U.S. alternate captain Brianna Decker and Finland’s Ronja Savolainen caused both players to fall to the ice, with Decker’s left leg buckling underneath her opponent.

In the near-empty Wukesong Sports Center, Decker’s screams of pain were audible. The three-time Olympian was stretchered off and USA Hockey later confirmed that she had sustained a tournament-ending injury.

“I just told her, ‘We got this,'” U.S. captain Kendall Coyne Schofield said. “No matter what, she’s a big part of this group. … You saw that in our response after she went down, how much we picked up the game and took control.”

The U.S. went on to defeat Finland 5-2, with both Amanda Kessel and Alex Carpenter tallying goals in the four minutes following Decker’s injury. Coyne Schofield added made it 4-0 in the second period, while Carpenter added a second goal in the third. Three-time Olympian Susanna Tapani recorded both of Finland’s goals.

MORE WOMEN’S HOCKEY COVERAGE: Denmark’s Olympic hockey teams make sibling history in Beijing

Still, the U.S. team’s decisive win was muted by the early-game injury.

Decker has been a key member of the U.S. national women’s hockey for over a decade. A six-time world champion and two-time Olympic medalist, the Wisconsin native has long been considered one of the best players in the world. Last August at the 2021 World Championships, she became the U.S. team’s all-time assist leader in world championship history when she tallied her 39th assist.

But her injury highlights a key decision USA Hockey made heading into this month’s Winter Olympics.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic – and China’s stringent testing and isolation procedures – ice hockey’s international federation (IIHF) announced that each men’s and women’s team would be allowed to bring six additional players (aka taxi players) to the Winter Olympics in case of injury and/or illness, including COVID-19. This had the potential to be especially impactful on the women’s side, where Olympic rosters are limited to 23 players, compared to 25 on the men’s side.

Earlier this week, Hockey Canada confirmed that its women’s team had taken advantage of the rule change. Esther Madziya, the communications manager for Canada’s women’s team, told On Her Turf via email that four taxi players were traveling to Beijing. “They will practice and skate and be ready if and when we need them,” Madziya wrote.

The U.S. women’s team, however, does not currently have any additional players in Beijing. The U.S. men’s hockey team brought one taxi player to Beijing: Justin Abdelkader, USA Hockey confirmed on Thursday.

Before the U.S. women’s team departed for Beijing, an unknown number of players who were cut from the 23-player Olympic roster were asked to stay on standby.

In screen shots reviewed by On Her Turf, general manager Katie Million emailed these players the day the U.S. team departed for Beijing, asking them to “remain eligible (and covid free) so that if an injury should occur or someone tests positive for covid while we are in Beijing, we could still possibly call on you to fulfill a role.”

Million’s email went on to say that while Olympic hockey teams had an option to bring reserve athletes, they had decided not to utilize the taxi squad option prior to the start of the Games. She wrote: “Unfortunately, it is not as simple as it may sound and not a very nice experience for those chosen for this role.”

Million cited the fact that while these alternate athletes would be permitted to practice, they would not be allowed to sit on the bench, live in the village, or be considered an Olympian unless they replaced one of the rostered athletes. “Instead of this alternate/reserve option, we will only call on one of you if there is a significant injury or covid issue that allows us to add an athlete,” she wrote.

The reserve athletes were told that they should continue entering their health monitoring data every day in order to remain eligible, but that they would not be required to PCR test.

Given that athletes need two negative PCR test results prior to flying to Beijing – one 96 hours in advance and the other 72 hours in advance – it seems unlikely that the U.S. women’s hockey team would be able to add an athlete to its roster until at least next week, should they choose to.

In January, two days after the U.S. women’s hockey team was officially announced, Million was asked in a press conference whether USA Hockey would consider bringing taxi players to the Beijing Winter Olympics. Here is her response in-full:

At this time, no, we are planning to move forward with our main team, a 23-player roster. We’re really excited about those players and obviously we’re doing everything we can to keep everyone safe and healthy. I do know per the Beijing Olympic Committee rules we do have the opportunity if – for some reason – someone was unable to compete – whether that’s injury COVID etc. – that we do have a small, a very small, window to bring in alternate players if we need to. But obviously that’s a worst-case scenario. And we’re preparing for every scenario, but hopefully we don’t have to do that.

After the U.S. team’s win against Finland, Erica Ayala reported that U.S. women’s head coach Joel Johnson said the team will consider its options moving forward.

The U.S. women will face off next against the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), a team that is currently having COVID-19 challenges, on Saturday.

On Her Turf’s complete guide to the women’s Olympic ice hockey tournament – including a full schedule, team rosters, and tournament history – can be found here.

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Justine Wong-Orantes’ atypical path to becoming one of the best liberos in the world

Justine Wong-Orantes hits the ball in the women's semi-final volleyball match between USA and Serbia during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
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It’s been 20 years since the same nation held both the Olympic and world volleyball titles at the same time, but libero Justine Wong-Orantes is looking to help lead Team USA accomplish that very feat at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championships in the Netherlands and Poland. Competition began on Friday and the U.S. is currently 2-0 after group play wins against Kazakhstan and Canada.

“We’re trying to win, for sure,” Wong-Orantes told On Her Turf. “I think, especially with the new turn of the program and the new year of the quad, we just have a really nice blend of veterans and also newcomers on the team.”

The 14-woman roster for Team USA, which is ranked No. 1 in the world and won its first Olympic title last summer, features six players from that gold-medal-winning team. And while Wong-Orantes is among the 2021 U.S. Olympic team veterans, she’s still a relative newcomer to international play.

The Southern California native enjoyed a notable junior career – she was 12 when she became the youngest female to ever earn an AAA rating in beach volleyball – and was a standout collegian at Nebraska, where she was a member of the 2015 NCAA championship team. But Wong-Orantes followed a different path upon graduation, initially choosing not to go overseas to play professionally.

While she was first selected for the U.S. national team in 2016 and played a handful of international tournaments in the following years, it wasn’t until she started playing professionally in Germany in 2019 that she saw the potential to elevate her position on the roster. In particular, the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics gave her an additional year of overseas experience, which she calls “a blessing in disguise.”

“I just felt like I was still in that developmental stage,” she said. “And a whole year postponement allowed me to go overseas and really get all the touches, all the repetitions, and just kind of expose myself to international volleyball another year. So I was, in hindsight, pretty thankful for that COVID season because I got an extra year under my belt, and I think that just gave me a ton of confidence.”

Ahead of the Olympics, Wong-Orantes earned “best libero” honors at the 2021 FIVB Volleyball National League in Rimini, Italy, which helped secure her spot on the Olympic roster. In Tokyo, she followed up with another standout performance and was named best libero of the Olympic tournament.

As to how the Wong-Orantes transformed into one of the world’s top liberos, she points to her background as a beach volleyball player. She began competing at age 8, and her first partner was Sara Hughes, a star on the AVP Pro Tour who also won two NCAA titles with USC.

“I think having that background and just the court awareness that beach volleyball forces you to have allowed me to really have a good read on the game,” said Wong-Orantes. “I think that’s what makes a great libero is just reading and always being reactive towards the ball.”

Wong-Orantes also credits the assistance of mental coach Sue Enquist, a former UCLA softball coach and U.S. national team coach, who now helps teams work on their culture and relationships. Enquist began working with the U.S. volleyball team during the pandemic and has continued in her role ever since.

“We just worked on a lot of stuff within ourselves, within our program, how to communicate with each other off the court, and I think that honestly propelled us into such a high, high level with how we worked with each other, and then that transferred onto the court,” explained Wong-Orantes, who noted the team has Enquist on speed dial while at the World Championship. “I really commend Sue. I just really give a lot of praise to her because I think our culture was never bad, but I think [she] just transformed into a different level.”

2022-09-26 - FIVB Volleyball Womens World Championship 2022 - Day 4
ARNHEM, NETHERLANDS – Justine Wong-Orantes (far right) poses for a photo with her U.S. teammates after defeating Canada at the 2022 FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Championship on September 26, 2022. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/Orange Pictures/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

Wong-Orantes said she and her U.S. teammates are on their toes for the world championships, which features twice as many teams (24) as the Olympics and a “more grueling” format.

“It’s going to be a long tournament, and I think we’re really going to need all 14 of us that are here. I’m pretty certain that, at any given moment, someone’s going to be called on and someone’s going to need to step up in big moments.”

2022 Ascendant LPGA: How to watch, who’s playing in Texas’s annual signature event

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand hits her second shot on the 16th hole during the final round of the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
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The LPGA make its annual stop in The Colony, Texas, this week for the 10th edition of the Ascendant LPGA benefiting Volunteers of America, where Thailand’s 19-year-old rookie Atthaya Thitikul comes in hot off her second career win and second playoff victory this season at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.

Leading the 132-player field at Old American Golf Club, located at Golf Clubs at The Tribute, are Texas residents and past champions Cheyenne Knight and Angela Stanford. They’ll compete for the $1.7 million prize purse alongside major champions Nelly KordaLydia Ko and Brooke Henderson. Last year’s Ascendant LPGA champion, world No. 1 Jin Young Ko, will not be defending her title after announcing earlier this month she would be missing several weeks due to a nagging wrist injury.

This past weekend in Arkansas, Thitikul took the lead with a 10-under 61 in the second round and shot 68 in the final round to finish regulation tied with Danielle Kang at 17-under 196. Thitikul, who won the JTBC Classic in March in a two-hole playoff vs. Nanna Koerstz Madsen, drained an 8-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to secure the win over Kang.

How to watch the 2022 Ascendant LPGA 

Coverage of the 2022 Ascendant LPGA from Old American Golf Club in The Colony, Texas, can be found on Golf Channel, with streaming options available any time on any mobile device and online through NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

  • Thursday, Sept. 29: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, Sept. 30: 12:30-3:30 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, Oct. 1: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, Oct. 2: 1-4 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2022 Ascendant LPGA

Six of the top 10 players in the Rolex World Rankings are among the field in Texas, including:

  • No. 2 Nelly Korda
  • No. 4 Lydia Ko
  • No. 5 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 7 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka

A number of local Texans also are in the tournament, headlined by past champions, Angela Stanford (2020) and Cheyenne Knight (2019), and two junior champions of the Volunteers of America Classic Girls Championship, who are playing on a sponsor exemption: Yunxuan (Michelle) Zhang (2022), a freshman at SMU, and Avery Zweig (2021), a high school sophomore from McKinney, Texas.

Past five champions of The Ascendant LPGA

2021 Jin Young Ko (South Korea) 16-under 268 1 stroke Matilda Castren
2020 Angela Stanford (USA) 7-under 277 2 strokes So Yeon Ryu, Inbee Park, Yealimi Noh
2019 Cheyenne Knight (USA) 18-under 266 2 strokes Brittany Altomare, Jaye Marie Green
2018 Sung Hyun Park (South Korea) 11-under 131 1 stroke Lindy Duncan
2017 Haru Nomura (Japan) 3-under 281 Playoff Christie Kerr

Last time at The Ascendant LPGA

South Korea’s Jin Young Ko carded a final-round 69 to maintain her 54-hole lead at Old American Golf Club and held on for a one stroke win at the 2021 Volunteers of America Classic, her eighth career LPGA tour title. Ko finished regulation at 16-under 268, edging Finland’s Matilda Castren by one stroke.

It kicked off a five-win season for Ko, who had just lost her No. 1 ranking to Nelly Korda the week prior after holding the top spot for 100 straight weeks. She regained the No. 1 ranking back in October 2021, after earning her fourth win in seven starts at the BMW Ladies Championship.

More about Old American Golf Club

Opened in 2010, the Old American Golf Club is one of two clubs at The Tribute, a lakefront resort community on Lewisville Lake in The Colony, Texas. Designed by Tripp Davis and 12-time PGA Tour winner Justin Leonard, Old American plays as a Par 71 and stretches to 6,475 yards on the tournament scorecard.