Poulin (who else?) scores OT winner in USA-Canada rematch

Marie-Philip Poulin after scoring the OT winner in the USA-Canada rematch
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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Upon adding yet another notch to her “Captain Clutch” nickname, and against the Americans yet again, Canadian Marie-Philip Poulin focused less on the past and more on the future in seeing a glimpse of what professional women’s hockey could resemble one day soon.

The “Rivalry Rematch” on Saturday was an exhibition organized by the the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, played on an NHL rink and with monetary backing from league and corporate sponsors, with a crowd of 5,400 on hand and broadcast nationally in both countries. And it was a showcase that coincided with the PWHPA intensifying discussions with select NHL teams and its sponsors to launch a pro league within the next year.

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“Obviously, today was special. It’s more than a winner or loser to be honest,” said Poulin, who scored 2:13 into overtime to secure a 4-3 win.

“Walking in, treated like professionals. I think that’s something that we really wanted for years,” she added. “It was more about women’s hockey and I think we made a statement today.”

Poulin’s goal was the exclamation point, coming a little over three weeks after she scored the final two goals in Canada’s gold medal-winning 3-2 win over the U.S at the Beijing Winter Olympics. The four-time Olympian’s list of clutch goals includes three gold-medal clinchers — all against the United States — and the overtime goal in Canada’s 3-2 gold-medal win over the Americans at the world championships in August.

With teams playing three skaters aside, Poulin drove to the right post and had her centering pass deflect off U.S. defender Megan Keller and through the legs of goalie Nicole Hensley.

Blayre Turnbull, Jamie Lee Rattray and Jocelyne Larocque also scored for Canada, which has won five consecutive meetings against its cross-border rival.

Hilary Knight, Hayley Scamurra and Hannah Brandt scored for the Americans.

With Penguins captain Sidney Crosby watching from a suite, the U.S. rallied from a pair of one-goal deficits and took a 3-2 lead on Scamurra’s goal at 7:46 of the third period. Canada responded 24 seconds later with Poulin setting up Rattray snapping in a shot from the right circle.

The game featured uneven rosters, with the U.S. dressing just 14 skaters to the Canadians’ 17, and lacked the intensity of both meetings in Beijing, or even the two nations’ six pre-Olympic tune-ups.

Putting aside the loss and America’s fierce on-ice rivalry with Canada, Knight called the event “a wonderful glimpse into the near future” by crediting the PWHPA and Penguins for pulling it off in 11 days.

The PWHPA was formed three years ago following the demise of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League with an objective to form a pro league with what it called a sustainable economic model with more robust support for players.

RELATED: USA-Canada ‘Rivalry Rematch’ highlights historic underinvestment, and future potential, of women’s hockey

“We’re closer than we’ve ever been,” PWHPA chief Jayna Hefford told The Associated Press in confirming discussions have ramped up.

“There’s a lot of interest, a lot of conversations going on. I think teams, now more than an ever, are seeing how accretive it is to their business,” Hefford added. “It’s not about the right thing to do. It’s not anything other than this is good for our business and this is good for the business of hockey.”

The Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs have been among the strongest and most notable PWHPA partners. The Penguins have several ties to women’s hockey in becoming the NHL’s 11th franchise to partner with the PWHPA. Seattle has also expressed interest.

“We’ve got to figure out a long-term plan that includes the National Hockey League, and I know they’re willing to do it,” said Penguins president Brian Burke, a long-time proponent of women’s hockey and the PWHPA. “We’ve been slow to figure out the best path, but it’s not because the NHL is not behind it. It’s just trying to figure out the best way to go.”

Citing the level of skill on display during the women’s Olympic tournament, Burke said: “I think we’re poised to take the next big, big step and that’s going to happen, I think, in the next 18 months.”

The women’s players would prefer it happened yesterday, while understanding how critical it is for the funding and partnerships to be in place before launching on their own.

“While it’s been frustrating these past couple of years to not have full seasons, to not have leagues to play in, we understand that this is bigger than ourselves,” Canadian forward Brianne Jenner said. “And we’re willing to go through the proper process and make sure that whatever is next to come is going to last indefinitely.”

It’s why Hefford has been cautious in releasing too much information or placing a timetable on when a pro league might be established.

“We don’t want to do this again. We got to make sure we get it right this time,” she said.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan cited his daughters as key reasons to support women’s hockey.

“My daughters looked up to these girls, the Cammi Granatos and the girls that won the gold medal at the Olympics. And they’re not unlike boys in that regard, where they are looking up to the Crosbys and the Malkins and the Letangs,” Sullivan said, referencing Penguins stars. “That’s what inspires them to want to play. … I think we all have a responsibility to try and grow the game in that regard.”

Crystal Dunn returns to USWNT roster five months after giving birth

Nigeria v USWNT
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Crystal Dunn was named to the USWNT roster for two upcoming friendlies against England and Spain, marking her first official selection since giving birth to son Marcel in May.

Dunn made her NWSL return with the Portland Thorns earlier this month and also trained with the U.S. team as a non-rostered player ahead of friendlies vs. Nigeria.

In addition to Dunn, the 24-player roster features a veteran core of Alyssa Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Pugh, and Megan Rapinoe.

Alex Morgan was not named to the USWNT roster due to a knee injury. While U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not provide details of the injury, he noted that “if this was a World Cup final, Alex was going to be on this trip and was going to play, no question.”

Other roster highlights include 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who becomes the first player born in 2004 to receive a USWNT call-up. Thomas, a high senior, plays club soccer for the U-17 Total Futbol Academy boys’ team.

“We are very excited for her, very excited about her potential and qualities and looking forward to seeing how she will turn out in our environment,” Andonovski said of Thompson. “This camp is not make it or break it. It’s a first experience for her, it’s just something that she shouldn’t even worry about.”

The USWNT also includes a handful of players who have made their USWNT breakthrough this season — thanks in part to both strong NWSL play and injuries to more veteran players. That list includes the likes of Naomi Girma (7 caps), Taylor Kornieck (5 caps), Hailie Mace (5 caps), Sam Coffey (1 cap), and Savannah DeMelo (0 caps).

Andonovski on Thursday called Coffey, a midfielder for the Portland Thorns, a candidate for NWSL MVP.


USWNT Roster for October 2022 Friendlies vs. England and Spain

Goalkeepers (3):

  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)
  • Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

Defenders(7):

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Sofia Huerta (OL Reign)
  • Hailie Mace (Kansas City Current)
  • Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)

Midfielders (8):

  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon, FRA)
  • Taylor Kornieck (San Diego Wave FC)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC)
  • Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
  • Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

Forwards (6):

  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Total Futbol Academy)

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.”