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In our Thrills in Tokyo series, we’ll highlight some of the summer Olympics biggest competitions. More than just focusing on the teams, we’ll look at the colleges from which these athletes hail. 

It was a rematch with dramatically different results this time around.

At the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, Team USA’s Women’s Indoor Volleyball battled Serbia in the sport’s semifinals. Only then, America’s squad lost to the Europeans, playing five sets before the Serbs ultimately won. That team went on to win silver, while Team USA took home the bronze.

Flash forward to 2021—another semifinals match this week; another face-off between USA and Serbia. This time, though, it was the Americans who claimed victory, beating Serbia in straight sets, winning the first frame 25-19, the second 25-15, and the third 25-23. And this time, it will be Team USA playing in tomorrow’s finals, challenging Brazil.

This year’s Women’s team certainly has a few veterans. Jordan Larson and Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson appear in their third straight Games, having won silver in London and bronze in Rio; Kim Hill and Kelsey Robinson, also Rio bronze medalists, will make their second. But it may be the eight rookies who’ll help drive the team over the top. Among them, a couple of Penn State grads who’ve already made their mark outside Olympic courts.

I could never have pegged this sweet a path that I’m on.

Haleigh Washington

Haleigh Washington, a national team member since 2018, won an NCAA title in 2014 while at the university, where she was a three-time, first-team All-American. Washington also won the title of best blocker at the 2019 Volleyball Nations League, where she helped the U.S. win gold. Over the last couple of years, Washington has played professionally in Italy.

Even before then, Washington made quite the mark in her home state of Colorado. Towering at 6’ 3” above her Colorado Springs high school classmates, she held a state record after putting down 48 kills in a match. She earned consecutive Colorado Volleyball Player of the Year honors in 2012 and 2013 and was named the 2013 Volleyball Magazine National Player of the Year. She was considered to be the nation's top high school recruit in her class.

“I could never have pegged this sweet a path that I’m on,” she told USA Volleyball. “I just figured I was here to learn and to get better and to improve and it would just be so surreal to be on that path.”

A few years older than Washington is fellow Lion Micha Hancock, the daughter of professional heavyweight boxer Michael Hancock and a native of Edmond, Oklahoma. Considered by many to be one of Penn State’s all-time greatest athletes, she was named the American Volleyball Coaches Association Division I National Player of the Year in 2014 and received the Association’s All-America first team honors three times.

Since graduating, Hancock has made her mark in worldwide championships, landing three gold medals in the FIVB league and, in the Pan-American Cup, two golds and one bronze. And speaking of worldwide, Hancock has played professionally in Italy, Poland, and Puerto Rico.

Of her many successes, Hancock has said, “Some people assume that I’m super confident. But I go through slumps just like every other server. I think my confidence has to do with how I can come out and perform just because I’ve done it for so long.”

Given that, viewers can expect to see a lot of confidence on the court Sunday when Hancock and her team vie for Team USA’s Women’s Indoor Volleyball first-ever gold medal.

For sports excitement, turn to the Olympics. For driving thrills, click here to see what Nissan has to offer.  

Catch full Olympic coverage on NBC, including the Women’s Indoor Volleyball final, tomorrow, Sunday, at 1:00 p.m. ET.

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