‘Just chill’ Naomi Girma could make USWNT debut vs. Uzbekistan

Naomi Girma at USWNT training camp
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When the U.S. women’s national soccer team (USWNT) returns to action this week with its first-ever friendlies against Uzbekistan, San Diego Wave defender Naomi Girma appears likely to make her senior national team debut.

Girma is one of three players — along with goalkeepers Aubrey Kingsbury (formerly Bledsoe) and Bella Bixby — looking to earn their first international cap with the USWNT.

The 21-year-old Girma previously starred for the USWNT at the youth level, including as captain of the under-20 women’s team. At Stanford, she was a two-time Pac-12 defender of the year and member of the Cardinal’s national championship team in 2019.

The No. 1 draft pick in the 2022 NWSL Draft, Girma has started all three of the San Diego Wave’s Challenge Cup games so far this season.

“Naomi has been improving very well,” U.S. soccer head coach Vlatko Andonovski said on Friday, adding that Girma and fellow USWNT defender Abby Dahlkemper have been playing side-by-side together for the San Diego Wave.

“In this camp, we can see the comfort level has (risen),” Andonovski said. “I feel pretty confident we will see Naomi in one of these two games.”

Girma has also gained experience from practicing against one of the best forwards in history: San Diego Wave teammate Alex Morgan.

“The level is higher, the players are better and playing against one of the top players in the world every day – I feel extremely blessed and grateful that I have this opportunity,” Girma said on a recent episode of Goal.com’s podcast “All of US: The U.S. Women’s Soccer Show.”

On Friday, Girma also received high praise from longtime best friend — and new Portland Thorns rival — Sophia Smith.

“I’m excited for everything that Naomi does, any time she does well, except when it’s against the Thorns,” Smith said. “She’s one of the best center backs that I’ve ever played with.”

Smith continued: “The thing about Naomi that’s just amazing is her calmness on the ball at center back. She’s just chill back there. She’s always making the right decisions, finding the best pass, and she’s confident on the ball. That’s what you want in a center back.”

Born and raised in San Jose, Calif., Girma says she was greatly influenced by her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ethiopia. While she admits there were challenges, Girma says her Ethiopian heritage served as great preparation for being part of a team.

“That dual upbringing was definitely interesting and something I had to navigate when I was younger, but I’m really thankful I had that experience now,” Girma told Goal.com. “It’s shaped me as a person, my values and the emphasis on community and support. That’s a big thing in Ethiopian culture and it’s something that I highly value.”

With a variety of U.S. national team players currently dealing with injury, pregnancy, or focusing on club play, this week’s games vs. Uzbekistan should provide an opportunity for young players like Girma, Jaelin Howell, and Trinity Rodman to gain valuable minutes.


How to watch the USWNT vs. Uzbekistan

The U.S. women’s soccer team will play two friendlies against Uzbekistan this week:

  • Saturday, April 9: Lower.com Field in Columbus, Ohio (5:30pm ET, FOX and Univision)
  • Tuesday, April 12: Subaru Park in Chester, Pa. (7 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and Univision Networks)

While the USWNT has played nine matches all-time in Columbus, Saturday marks their first visit to the new state-of-the-art, downtown venue, which hosted a World Cup qualifier for the U.S. Men’s National Team in January.

Uzbekistan, ranked 48th in the world and 10th in Asia, most recently played in February at the Turkish Women’s Cup, defeating Lithuania 1-0, falling to Ukraine 2-0 and drawing with Venezuela, 0-0. Uzbekistan, which gained its independence in 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, will be the 55th different country that the U.S. has played in international competition.

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: ‘Once-in-a-lifetime player’ Rhyne Howard headlines prospects at 2022 WNBA Draft

On Her Turf editor Alex Azzi also contributed to this report. 

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

YEAR WINNER SCORE MARGIN RUNNERUP
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.