U18 Women’s Hockey Worlds: After long wait, ‘relentless’ U.S. team is ready to play

Headshots of U.S. hockey players Laila Edwards and Kristen Simms, along with the IIHF U18 Women's Hockey World Championship logo
USA Hockey / IIHF

Ahead of the 2022 Women’s U18 Ice Hockey World Championship (June 6-13) in Madison, Wisconsin, On Her Turf caught up with two members of this year’s U.S. team: alternate captains Kirsten Simms (Plymouth, Mich.) and Laila Edwards (Cleveland Heights, Ohio).

This week’s tournament will mark the first IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship since before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Simms was a member of the gold-medal winning U.S. team in 2020, while Edwards is making her U18 world championship debut. Both players just completed their senior year of high school — and are missing their graduation ceremonies because of the tournament — and will continue their hockey careers as teammates at the University of Wisconsin. 

This Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity. On Her Turf’s guide to the 2022 U18 Women’s World Championship — which includes a full tournament schedule and details on how to watch — can be found here

On Her Turf: What does it mean for both of you to be on the U.S. roster for this year’s U18 Women’s World Championship? 

Kirsten Simms: It’s a huge honor to be on this team, especially with the tournament being held in Madison. I’m super excited to get going.

Laila Edwards: To play in this tournament is a dream that doesn’t feel real yet. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and it’s finally here.

On Her Turf: Kirsten, you’re one of two players (along with Danielle Burgen) on this U.S. team that also competed at U18 Worlds in 2020. What was that experience like for you? 

Simms: Being on that team two years ago was obviously a huge honor, especially being so young. It was such a good experience getting to play with girls older than me and girls that I looked up to my entire life… It’s a little bit different now, being one of the older ones, but it’s still cool knowing what’s going on and getting to help other people.

On Her Turf: What advice are you giving to teammates who haven’t played at this tournament before? 

Simms: (Don’t) let the nerves get to you. Just take it all in, knowing that you’re at a huge event. But at the end of the day, it’s just hockey and there’s no need to get nervous about it. Just play your game.

On Her Turf: Laila, you mentioned that playing at U18 Worlds is a “dream that doesn’t feel real yet.” I’m curious: when did the dream of competing at this level start for you? 

Edwards: Let’s see… I came to Selects Academy when I was 13. And that’s when the older girls there were trying out for the (U18) team.  And my sister (Chayla) was playing too; she’s three years older than me so my dad would talk about her going to these camps… (Once I learned more), I was like, ‘Oh, I kind of wanna do that one day,’ and that dream became bigger every year.

On Her Turf: What about for you, Kirsten? 

Simms: When I was really little, looking up to Olympic, national team-level players, you’re like, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ That’s what every little girl’s dream is, I guess. But (it became more of a reality) when I made the switch to girls’ hockey. I started watching the (U18) level and that’s when I got an understanding of what that was. Each year, (the goal) just grew and grew and grew and it started to become a reality as I went to more camps.

On Her Turf: You mentioned being inspired by the Olympic and national team players… How did it feel when those same players were some of the most vocal after this U18 tournament was initially cancelled in December? I know a lot of them were speaking up and saying, ‘Hey, why was this cancelled? Isn’t there a way to reschedule it?’ 

Simms: That meant the world, seeing them repost everything. The amount of backlash the IIHF was getting when it was initially cancelled was super cool. Even though those players are older than us, even though they are on that national team, they want to see us to achieve what they got to achieve when they were (our) age.

Edwards: I thought it was really cool how they advocated for us because they could have simply just gone about their days. (The cancellation) didn’t really affect them, necessarily. But like Kirsten said, they wanted us to get the opportunity they had to keep growing the game. That has to happen one step at a time and I think they’re committed to that.

MORE U18 WOMEN’S HOCKEY: Game schedule, how to watch, tournament format for the 2022 World Championship

On Her Turf: Looking ahead to the tournament this week. You start off with group play games against Sweden, Finland, and Canada. What are the team’s expectations and goals heading into those first three games? 

Edwards: We have three words that we (focus on): pride, relentless, and together. So no matter the opponent, we’re just going to do our best to showcase that we can do those three (things) well.

On Her Turf: For people that are watching this week — either in-person at LaBahn Arena or at home on TV — what do you want them to know about your teammates? 

Edwards: I think our teammates play with a lot of heart. That takes a lot of courage and should earn the respect of the viewers. That’s a big thing.

Simms: I think the love of the game that our team has and just how close we are as a group to really shows on the ice. And the speed and skill of our team is just at another level.

On Her Turf: I know the team has been in a training camp environment for the last week or so, but did you know everyone on the team pretty well before this or are there some teammates you just met for the first time? 

Simms: We’ve known each other for quite a while, actually. After camp last August, (the roster) was trimmed down to almost the group we have now. So even when the tournament got cancelled in December, we all stayed connected and we were just hoping that this was going to get rescheduled.

Edwards: We also just know each other from traveling and playing against each other. Kirsten’s team actually ended my team’s season this year. So it’s a little bit of bad blood there, but we try to get past it.

Simms: (Laughs)

On Her Turf: Oh, I want to hear this story. What round did that happen in? 

Edwards: It was literally the first game of playoffs. It was quarterfinals.

On Her Turf: What was the final score? 

Edwards: It was 3 or 4 to 1, I don’t remember.

Simms: I think it was 3-1, plus an empty net (goal).

On Her Turf: At least you two will get to be teammates together next season at Wisconsin. What are you most looking forward to as you transition to college hockey?

Edwards: I’m excited because I think it’ll force me to find an extra gear to keep up, I’ll learn new things from my teammates, and maybe even opponents.

Simms: For me, it’s just kind of a speed transition. It’s gonna be a quicker game, quicker plays, quicker puck movement… So I’m super excited to play at that higher level and to play with girls that are three years older than me. You have to step up to their game. You don’t get that in youth hockey, where you’re playing with girls (the same age).

On Her Turf: I know you’re obviously focused on this U18 world championship, and then your college careers after that… but there’s also been a lot of momentum in women’s pro hockey recently, including with U.S. national team players Kendall Coyne Schofield and Hilary Knight helping to lead the PWHPA. Have you been following those developments at all, given that they could impact you once you graduate from college and reach that point in your hockey careers? 

Edwards: Well, personally, I don’t know too much about the pro league (situation), but I do know that they’ve been making bigger steps as of late, like Mikyla Grant-Mentis (signing for an $80,000) salary and stuff like that. And I think it’s going to continue to grow, which is good for us.

Simms: I’ve been following what the PWHPA is trying to do. I think it’d be pretty cool if it could (become) a huge league or whatever cause all the national team players are on it. So yeah, I’m definitely hoping that they can keep growing so we have somewhere to play after college.

On Her Turf: I think that’s all of my questions. Anything I should have asked but didn’t? 

Edwards: I think it’s super cool we get to play (U18 Worlds) in LaBahn Arena, which is where we’ll play for the next four years. It’s definitely unique… you wouldn’t think your first game (on that ice) wouldn’t be (for Wisconsin).

Simms: Or in a USA jersey.

On Her Turf: So is this the first time both of you have skated on the ice at LaBahn?

Simms: Yeah–

Edwards: No, we did the Badger camp, Kirsten!

Simms: Oh, yeah. True. Sorry!

On Her Turf: I love the fact checking, Laila.

Edwards: But it’s been years, like five or six years.

On Her Turf: I saw a photo of the new ice on Twitter, complete with the logo for the tournament. Does it look as good in person as it does on social media?

Edwards: It looks even better, feels better too. It’s nice ice.

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.