‘Natural-born leader’ Angel McCoughtry steps into veteran role as Lynx chase fifth WNBA title

Angel McCoughtry #35 of the Minnesota Lynx poses.
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Just six months ago as the 2021 season came to a close, five-time All-Star and two-time Olympian Angel McCoughtry admitted she didn’t see herself as a member of the four-time WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx. But with just two weeks to go before the season opener, the former overall No. 1 draft pick now says she can’t see herself anywhere else.

“I’m going to be honest, I thought I was going to go back to the (Las Vegas) Aces – I never thought that I was going to be on another team,” said the 35-year-old McCoughtry, who played for Las Vegas the last two seasons but spent all but one game during 2021 on the bench due to a torn ACL in her right knee.

“I had to look at where I could be successful coming off another injury, who still believed in me – that I can do what I know how to do on the court – and Cheryl (Reeve) was the perfect person,” she said, adding that being near the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., with anytime access to medical care, is another bonus. “This is definitely a great situation for me.”

Training camp kicked off Monday for the Lynx, who made no secret during media day on Wednesday that their mission is to send star player Sylvia Fowles off to retirement with a league title in her 15th and final season. Head coach Cheryl Reeve and the Lynx have made the WNBA Playoffs 11 straight years, and two of their four titles have come with the 6-6 Fowles at center. Fowles herself said the addition of the 6-1 McCoughtry is a perfect complement to her own goals for the season, which include imparting as much knowledge as possible to her teammates.

“Angel is good seed for me,” explained Fowles, a seven-time All-Star and four-time Defensive Player of the Year. “She’s very much vocal – more vocal than I am. So when I feel like I can’t get things across or when I’m frustrated, Angel is that person to deliver that message … and in the right tone, so she will help me a lot in that way.”

The respect is mutual between the two, who played together on the 2012 and 2016 U.S. Olympic teams. In September, both were named to “The W25,” which honored the 25 most influential players in the league’s first 25 seasons.

“Playing with Syl certainly had an impact on me coming to Minnesota,” said McCoughtry, who signed on with Las Vegas on Feb. 2. “That’s kind of like the icing on the cake – that I get to play with her (during her) last year. We have a lot of great memories together.

“It is a bit emotional thinking like, ‘This is her last year.’ We won’t see her again on the court. But what I can say, the great part about it, is to be a part of history and playing with her in her life. That’s definitely just an amazing thing.”

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Entering her 13th season in the league, McCoughtry is ready to step right into a leadership role with the Lynx, her third career team. After playing college ball at Louisville, the Baltimore, Md., native was drafted the No. 1 overall pick by the Atlanta Dream, where she earned Rookie of the Year honors in 2009 and spent 10 seasons before joining Las Vegas in 2020.

“I’m just a natural-born leader,” she said. “This is my third team, so it doesn’t matter where I am, you know, the leadership comes out, my experience, or what I see.”

However, McCoughtry said she’s hung back slightly as training camp gets underway this week, taking time to learn the system and getting to know her teammates.

“For Angel, it’s new,” said Reeve regarding McCoughtry’s transition. “So even though you’re a veteran and you’ve got years behind you, you’re going into a new camp. Angel is wanting to learn as quickly as she can so that she can be a leader and do the things that, later in life, she’s gotten really good at: She’s a really good mentor, really good voice, pulling players aside and just sharing nuggets that she’s learned along the way.”

“She likes to talk the game a lot, which I really enjoy,” said guard Rachel Banham, who’s entering her third season with the Lynx. “She asks questions, talks the game. And I didn’t know that of her. I thought, you know, maybe she just kind of goes out there and does it, but she’s good about really learning the game and talking through it.”

That basketball IQ has translated into a slew of honors and notable stats for McCoughtry, who twice led the WNBA in scoring in 2012 (21.4 points per game) and 2013 (21.5 PPG) and is seventh in career points per game (18.7). She holds the single-game scoring records for both a WNBA Finals game (38 vs. Minnesota in 2011) and a playoff game (42 vs. New York in 2010).

Her last turn as an All-Star came in 2018 and her last appearance in the WNBA Finals came in 2020 with Las Vegas, but while McCoughtry admits she may not be far behind Fowles out the door, she still has unfinished business to handle.

“I still have a little bit in the tank to get back to the history that this franchise has had, and the nightmares they gave me in my career early on,” adds McCoughtry. “So, you know, hopefully we can be a nightmare to some other people.”

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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.”