May 18, 2022 - There was, if everyone is being honest with themselves, only one place Sarah Wood was setting the ball in the early evening of April 30: Adrianna Nora.
Yet, as it had gone during the previous 34 points of the second set of the final match at the annual Clash, it just didn’t matter that the defense knew with absolute certainty where Wood was setting it. It didn’t matter that there was only a foot-wide alley for Nora to swing. A foot may as well be a mile to Adrianna Nora on the grass.
She took advantage, bombing a swing down the line, tagging it no more than 10 feet from the net, well before any defender would have a reasonable chance of touching it, much less digging it.
Nora is one of the few players who can turn volleyball, a sport where the general aim is to get hit by the ball in a preferably controlled fashion, into dodgeball, a sport where you avoid such things at all costs.
That’s the power of the 29-year-old affectionately known as Red.
“Her potential has always been undeniable,” said Pri Lima, who has coached Nora on and off for four years in St. Petersburg, Fla. “She hits the ball harder than most top five teams in the nation, and possibly the top players in the world, in my opinion.”
Hers is an opinion that demands respect. Lima has won eight professional events and is regarded as one of the best coaches in the country, named by USA Volleyball as the Junior Beach Coach of the Year. She’s seen the best in the world.
Nora’s right arm is up there with anyone’s.
“The question was: Can she hit like that consistently?” Lima said. “Back then, the answer was no, but since she has committed to train five days a week, lifting three times a week, conditioning one to two times per week this year, her game has improved at such a rate that no one has any doubt that she can now sustain not only her hitting, but her entire game.”
Nora plays a powerful game, yes, one that makes it immediately evident why she was an All-America honorable mention outside hitter at Minnesota. But her power commands so much attention that it almost belies her athleticism and deft touch. It’s obvious she hits as well as anyone. What goes unnoticed is an ability to move well on a constantly shifting surface, to set her partners where they need it, to pass in the correct spots.
She’s been inadvertently training this athleticism, this all-around beachy skillset, since she was a kid in Stillwater, Minnesota. She played basketball, soccer, softball, was even the only girl on the baseball team for a bit. She tried to play football but her parents shot that down. Which was ok.
It made more time for volleyball.
“I was that kid who would watch videos of the men’s Brazilian team especially and if I didn’t have a partner I would go to the roof and hit it and it would come down at all these different angles,” Nora said. “That’s what my life was. But it was only indoor, never beach. I didn’t know what beach was.”
The beach is still relatively new to her, not in the way grass is. Stillwater is just a few hours’ drive from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, home of the annual Waupaca Boatride. A life playing indoors made her well-suited for the grass, a power game for a power athlete. While she’s still only played 11 AVP tournaments, her AVPAmerica profile is getting deeper and deeper. Already, she’s competed in nine beach tournaments as well as the Clash – 10 in 2022 alone. Only once has she finished outside of the top five.
“This is the first year I’ve really committed myself to a full year of training,” Nora said. “Pri’s always like ‘You’re always gone for a month here and a month there.’ I considered myself a snowbird until this last year.”
This weekend, she’ll be competing again, in San Antonio with Sara Putt. She’ll have a shot at qualifying for her first main draw in AVP New Orleans. On the off-chance the ball is intentionally put into her hands, the defense is more than likely aware of what’s coming.
The question is: Who can actually dig the swing from Red?
Perhaps the better question might be: Who would voluntarily get in the way?
“We’re a good team,” Nora said of her and Putt. “Sara’s fast, and I like to hit.”
~ Travis Mewhirter: @trammew