It has been a whirlwind last six months for Team USA opposite Annie Drews, but Team USA’s breakout star wouldn’t change a bit of it. The Elkhart, Indiana, native was in the midst of her second professional season in Puerto Rico after an All-American career at Purdue, when her future opportunities suddenly went to another level. An hour-long Facetime session with USA head coach Karch Kiraly solidified her summer plans with a United States national team call-up.
Drews and Kiraly had spoken during the summer of 2016 about the possibility, but nothing was in stone until the call this spring. So, with her summer in a USA jersey looming, Drews did what she always does, put down her head and played her game, leading her Caquas Criollas team to the Puerto Rican SuperLiga title en route to MVP honors.
Once her season ended, it was back to Indiana for a heartbeat (four days to repack) and then off to Anaheim to see what the future held. What has followed in the last three months has taken the 6-4 opposite to Peru for the Pan American Cup, to China for the finals of the World Grand Prix and soon to Japan for the World Grand Champions Cup.
Drews led Team USA in scoring against Columbia, Mexico and Argentina at the Pan Am Cup in June, but that wasn’t enough to convince Kiraly to include her in the World Grand Prix preliminary roster in July. Fast forward a month and Drews was in for the team’s finals appearance in China, leading the way in the match against Italy with 16 points.
Then, this week, she was the team leader in both matches of the USA Volleyball Cup against defending Olympic silver medalists, Brazil.
“It has been awesome,” Drews said of her crazy summer. “It has been really fun, but there is going to be a point sometime in September, when I am going to say, okay, I haven’t breathed since March.”
That quick breathe will have to come either in the week between Japan and her voyage to Italy to join her new SASB Vollyball Legano team in Italy’s Serie A2 or during the month of training she’ll have before the team’s opening match.
With the future looming and a match with Brazil on the horizon for Tuesday evening, Drews took a break from trying to figure out how to store her car and find time to move out of her apartment before Friday, to give VolleyMob.com an inside look at her journey.
How did you find out you had been called up for Team USA?
So last year, maybe in June, after my first season in Puerto Rico, I got an email from Karch and he just asked if I had a few minutes to talk. He just wanted to catch up and see how I was feeling and see where I was with volleyball and my health and everything after my first season. He explained that with last year being an Olympic year, they don’t really bring any new people out, they just focus on what they have and use the people they have. He said they were hoping to or intending to bring me out this summer. So, we talked for a little bit about things to work on and we really didn’t talk again until January or February, when I reached out and said I am feeling healthy, here is how things are going in Puerto Rico, etc. I didn’t know if I was still on the radar this summer or not. We actually ended up Facetiming when I was in Puerto Rico for about an hour and we talked a lot about volleyball and kind of what the summer would look like and got a lot of information then. It was all decided through a phone call last year and then really through Facetime this spring.
You were a late add to Team USA. Talk about that process from end of club season to your beginning with Team USA.
I was a late add because nearly every country’s national cup ends in April and ours in Puerto Rico was actually delayed this year and we have kind of a later season anyway, so I didn’t get finished until May 18. I got home to Indiana on a Tuesday or Wednesday and flew out to Anaheim that Sunday. There were a few of us like that from Puerto Rico that headed out late. The team started May 1, I got here May 21. I was in the last round of new people. You start on a Monday, so people had been coming every Monday depending on when they were done or when they graduated from college or whatever. I started training Monday the 22nd.
Every Friday from the beginning of May through June when we start travelling, we do scrimmages. It is a chance to get in a jersey with referees and line judges and simulate as best we can a real match environment. It is to see how you progress and deal with different things and play with different people. That was good chance to get comfortable and acclimated before Pan Am. Monday through Thursday, you get a lot of new information about how we run our system, and how to play with different people, then Friday is make the adjustments as you can but just play.(The scrimmages) are a good time to get most accustomed to it in a real volleyball environment instead of just practicing and drills and things like that.
What has been the biggest adjustment going from the pro ranks to international competitions with Team USA?
The biggest thing has been the adjustment to USA’s speed, both as a blocker and as a hitter, because we run a much faster offense than I was used to hitting both at Purdue and in Puerto Rico. Also a lot of the teams in the world don’t run at that speed, they just run higher balls and things like that. So catching up as a blocker was a learning experience, but also as a hitter and adjusting your footwork accordingly.
In Puerto Rico the season is short, so there is a sense of urgency. They really want you to perform or they will be bring in someone who they think can perform faster or better than you. It was a quick turnaround before we started travelling, but I think having playing in that environment before in Puerto Rico was a good step, because it was like alright you need to show up quickly, show what you can do and show people you are open to learning and stuff like that.
What was it like at the Pan Am Cup, your first major competition with Team USA?
It was interesting going in a double-sub role. I was playing with Lauren Carlini and we would go in and be the double sub for most of the tournament. We got a good amount of playing time, but it is a different dynamic when you are coming off the bench as opposed to starting and getting in a rhythm. That was a good experience. With the USA, we have so much talent in a lot of different positions, that nobody starts every tournament from start to finish in their career with the national team. It is good to learn how to be depended on both on the court and off the bench.
Through both competitions this summer, when you play against other teams, you learn a lot about where you stand against other countries. Because we have faced each other in practice so much, sometimes it is frustrating to block against our blockers or defend our hitters, but when you get against fresh faces you see different strengths and weaknesses. We have been learning a lot from each team this summer on what we can do better and how we can put pressure on other people better.
How has playing at Purdue and two professional seasons in Puerto Rico prepared you for playing with the best in the world?
The biggest thing Purdue really gave me was the chance to get a lot of reps in four years and be depended on. I was also to play back row at Purdue and develop that a little bit. I don’t think that would have been as true if I had gone somewhere else and redshirt and waiting til my junior or senior year to really start playing. I am really thankful for that.
I think the thing here (with Team USA) is that everyone is capable of getting a lot of balls and you are going to have nights where you are going to be getting a ton of sets and some where you won’t. It all depends on the gameplan, who we want to attack, and who is playing really well for us.
In Puerto Rico this past year we ran a more balanced offense. (2016) was the first year that Puerto Rico was in the Olympics for volleyball, so we had quite a few returning Olympians on our team, and we really tried to get everyone 10-15 points on any given night. Mentally, I felt a little more prepared in that sense because we ran a balanced offense and I think it was beneficial to learn how to still be confident, even when I am not getting every ball. I think in the past maybe I felt like my game depended on how much my setter was relying on me. Now, it is just more like work with what you do get, make smart decisions and stay disciplined when you are set.
You are in the midst of a breakout season with Team USA, what has helped you get to this point?
I told the team this and Karch this, but for a long time I have just relied on my athleticism to do a lot in my career. I think my mindset for a long time was to just power through – to jump higher and hit harder and try to out-power someone. I think here you have so much experience around you with Karch(Kiraly) and Jordan Larson and Kim Hill and Carli Lloyd, who have seen and played so much volleyball, that it is more about training my eyes to see the right things or trusting my setter that ball will be where it is meant to. It is less about what you can do physically, but more do you have the mental discipline. I feel like I have been learning so much about that. Being surrounded by so many good players has really been so beneficial because there are moments that I get in my head or start to overthink things or lose a little confidence and people come up and say here’s what helps me or I know you can do this. It has felt a lot like a group effort. I have learned a lot so far and I am excited about this next week in Japan and to keep playing with these veterans and keep learning. What an opportunity for me to get this time before going over to Italy.
What is it like putting on the USA Jersey?
It is very surreal. This summer has happened so fast. It is incredible. To be home this week in Anaheim on American soil and see people come out and support us has been super great.
Through Grand Prix and Pan Am and even two nights ago against Brazil, I think the biggest thing that gets me is the anthem, when you are in the jersey and they are holding the flag, you just have to take a moment and soak it in. It is just very surreal.
The Olympic Cycle – Do you take it one day or one year at a time or do you let yourself consider the possibilities?
I definitely think both. If you had asked me sixth months ago if this how things would have happened, I would have been surprised for sure. But, I love to be in situations where you are forced to get more comfortable in uncomfortable situations and I think that is what we are all doing here. We are trying to climb a little bit higher and see where that takes us. I definitely want to be here as long as they will have me. I am learning a lot about the game and about myself and how I respond in certain situations, but it has been nothing but good learning experiences this summer.
I think about both for sure. It is exciting to hear Karch and our staff and some of our older players talk about potential. Karch has said, not to put any pressure on anyone, but we are excited to see what could happen these next three years and beyond. You go day by day, but what gets you through some of the harder days or days when you are in your head a lot is what this could all really mean if you let yourself embrace it.
You grew up watching some of the players you are now playing with. What advice do you have for any players who would if they can do it or if that is something they can attain?
Be open to a lot of things. Say yes to opportunities. That is what a lot of this is. Seeing some decisions and saying yes when we think we can, even when it is uncomfortable, whether that means changing positions or whatever. Saying yes to opportunities and seeing where things go has been really big in my career, and also trying to embrace things that make you uncomfortable.
Don’t limit yourself with you think or other people think your ceiling is. I don’t think as a freshman in college I ever thought I would play six rotations, now I can’t imagine playing three. I love hitting back row and I love having the chance to serve and be on the court all of the time. Embracing things even when you can’t visualize it.
And also try your best to be a good teammate.