Female engineer Danielle Shepherd leads IMSA sports car team to victory

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Exhausted after closing out the win in the Twelve Hours of Sebring, Earl Bamber gave the shoutout heard ’round racing when engineer Danielle Shepherd was one of the first he acknowledged.

Shepherd last weekend became just the second woman in at least two decades to lead an IMSA sports car team to victory. Leena Gade, also an engineer, led an Audi win in 2013.

Shepherd earned her victory at the prestigious endurance race at Sebring in just her second time leading her new team. The 28-year-old was promoted during the offseason from Alex Palou’s IndyCar championship-winning team to her dream job of lead engineer.

IMSA engineer Danielle Shepherd
Danielle Shepherd (Photo via Richard Prince/Cadillac Racing)

She is now in charge of the startup No. 02 Cadillac for Chip Ganassi Racing; a year ago she became the first woman to go over the wall on pit stops.

Shepherd was atop the timing stand during an October test at Atlanta as Ganassi was building a crew for Bamber and co-driver Alex Lynn.

“I remember them asking at the time, ‘What do you think?’ And I said, ‘We have to have her,’” Bamber said this week. “For us inside the car, we’re an important part, but I’m a big believer in that if you don’t have the best people behind you, the best engineers, the best team, then you also can’t win the race. You need both to go hand in hand.

“I really believe that we’ve got one of the best in the paddock with Danielle on the timing stand. I was a big believer just from that first day.”

Shepherd, an Ohio native and engineering graduate of Wooster College, began her career at KV Racing working for childhood hero Jimmy Vasser, the driver she screamed for each year from her seats at the keyhole at Mid-Ohio Sports Course. At Sebring, they were side-by-side in the pits.

The full circle moment was not lost on Shepherd after Saturday’s win.

“It’s interesting and weird emotionally because it’s like the thing you achieve for, the thing you’ve worked so hard for, is kind of there,” Shepherd said. “You can always strive for more, but it is exciting.”

She has had a successful career at Ganassi and was part of two IndyCar championships, her first coming in 2018 with Scott Dixon. Shepherd steadily moved through the ranks chasing the IndyCar job equivalent to a NASCAR crew chief. All those jobs are held by men.

The expansion to two IMSA cars this year opened an opportunity that Shepherd went for, even though it was in a different series.

“It’s always been my goal to be the lead engineer, so the opportunity came and I told them I was interested in doing it,” Shepherd said.

She was tested quite a bit at Sebring, on and off the track. Kevin Magnussen was the scheduled third driver but the team had to scramble for a replacement when he was unexpectedly offered his old job in Formula One and took it.

Neel Jani had just about a week’s notice he was racing at Sebring with Bamber and Lynn. And then Bamber really tested the team’s nerves with an overly eventful final stint. He overcame two incidents and a penalty in his final 75-minute drive that could have cost the No. 02 team the victory.

Bamber inherited a lead of more than 30 seconds, but he collided with another car exiting pit lane and was given a drive-through penalty. Seconds after making the pass he needed to reclaim the lead, Bamber spun in yet another collision.

He had to chase down Richard Westbrook for a second time to reclaim the lead, and he at last grabbed control of the race with 45 minutes remaining. Bamber joked about the stress his gaffes created, but Shepherd runs an aggressive program.

“She definitely likes to push the limits and I like that she’s not afraid of making some bold moves,” Bamber said. “That’s what is important in racing is to test the extremes, and she doesn’t leave any stone unturned before going to the race to make sure she gives us the best car, and I think that’s what makes her strong.

“She wants to continuously improve, and that’s what I like about her character on that. And she does keep us on the straight and narrow.”

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.”