The NORCECA Women’s Continental Championship will be returning to U.S. soil for the first time in 20 years when Omaha hosts the six-day volleyball event at the Ralston Arena in September.
The U.S. National Team will be led by Olympic icon Karch Kiraly and could include former Nebraska stars Jordan Larson and Kayla Banwarth if they are selected for the 12-player team.
“All roads to the Olympics start with our zone,” Kiraly said Tuesday, “so it’s really important to set the tone right in our zone championships — right here in Ralston, in the first year of a big four-year quadrennium that ends up with us hopefully booking a ticket to go play in Rio and hopefully doing something special in Rio.”
Rio de Janeiro hosts the 2016 Summer Olympics.
The NORCECA Women’s Continental Championship will bring about 10 teams to Omaha from the North America, Central America and Caribbean regions. The U.S. women currently are ranked No. 1 in the world and won a silver medal at the 2012 Summer Games in London.
USA Volleyball and Omaha Sports Commission officials were among those announcing the Sept. 16 to 21 event during a press conference at the Ralston Arena. It will include the Omaha Convention and Visitor’s Bureau as the title sponsor and Pharmaceutical Technology Inc. as presenting sponsor.
The NORCECA Women’s Continental Championship — held every other year — was last played in the United States in 1993 when it was hosted by Colorado Springs, Colo. Team USA won the 2011 championship in Caguas, Puerto Rico.
The Continental Championship is part of the Olympic qualifying process in pre-Olympic years but not post-Olympic years. But Kiraly said that doesn’t make it any less important this September.
“There are no Olympic qualifying ramifications now, but there will be in two years,” he said. “So it’s really important to set the tone now, and we want to establish whatever advantage we can within our zone.”
It also will be an important lead-in to the Women’s Grand Champions Cup in Japan in November.
Kiraly attended the NCAA final four in 2008 and an NCAA regional in 2012 at the CenturyLink Center, and called Omaha and the Midwest “one of the most supportive areas for volleyball in the country.”
Because the NORCECA Women’s Continental Championship is spread out over six days, both Kiraly and Omaha Sports Commission President Harold Cliff said the Ralston Arena is the ideal fit. The facility, which opened last fall, will seat 4,019 for volleyball.
Cliff called the Ralston Arena more intimate and cost effective than putting the event in the CenturyLink Center, and it also will help with tickets being more affordable when they go on sale April 15 at the Ralston Arena box office.
“It’s a wonderful-sized venue to host this type of event, where you have some games that obviously wouldn’t draw capacity at a large arena,” Cliff said. “But it creates a demand for tickets and you can generate an awful lot of excitement in here for a USA game.”
Kiraly took over the U.S. women’s program from Hugh McCutcheon after the 2012 Summer Olympics. Larson and Banwarth are among about 25 players whom the program will carry from May through September, but Kiraly said former Husker star Nancy Metcalf currently is playing in her final event and heading for retirement.
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