Rising star Bajema back on roster as USA resume Volleyball Nations League play

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Kara Bajema can unload flat on a volleyball.

“She has one arm,” said American coach Karch Kiraly.

The 6-foot-2 outside hitter, the former Washington All-American, had some outstanding games for American women in the first round of the Volleyball Nations League, combining 19 kills, two blocks, 10 digs and an ace in his two starts hitting .358.

She wasn’t on the 14-player roster for the second round, but is back on the travel squad for the third round as the USA Women (7-1) travel to Calgary, Alta., and face Belgium on Wednesday.

This listing has the third different look in as many rounds. This includes seven players from the team that won gold at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, setters Jordyn Poulter and Micha Hancock, libero Justine Wong-Orantes, outside Kelsey Robinson , opposed to Annie Drews and Jordan Thompson, and midfielder Haleigh Washington. This will mark Poulter’s VNL debut in 2022.

The team also includes outsiders Kathryn Plummer and Sarah Wilhite Parsons, libero Morgan Hentz and midfielders Tori Dixon, Hannah Tapp and Dana Rettke.

Kara Bajema

Bajema, Rzeszow’s top scorer, was the Polish Cup MVP this spring when her club won all for the first time.

“It’s been a good year,” said the product from Lynden, Washington.

“She had a spectacular season which culminated in a very deep run to the Champions League qualifiers,” Kiraly said. “Her team, led by her, beat VakifBank (from Turkey), the best club team on the planet. Beating them at all times is a huge achievement and she led them throughout this match, especially in the fifth set. She had five kills, including the match point.

Interestingly, Bajema will move to VakifBank next season, essentially replacing her American teammate Michelle Bartsch-Hackley, who is taking a break from international volleyball.

“She is proving herself. We look at that kind of stuff, whether somebody’s playing in Turkey, Poland, Italy or wherever, Japan and many other places. When you play against really quality opponents like that and do well, it gets a lot of interest, so I’m very happy for her.

“She played for us last year at NORCECA right after the Olympics. Joe Trinsey was the head coach of that group because we hadn’t even returned when they started preparing. But she was a different Kara back then because she’d had about three months off and then they’d had two weeks of fast training. Now she is coming off a full, really solid and outstanding season at club level.

Bajema was an outside star in high school but moved into the middle as a rookie in Washington. She returned to the outside as a sophomore and eventually became a six-rotation player as a junior. This summer of 2019, she was able to play for the US varsity national team and competed in the World University Games, which happened to be coached by her varsity coach, Keegan Cook. As a senior, when Washington qualified for the NCAA Tournament Regional Finals, Bajema was a VolleyballMag.com first-team All-American.

Travis Mewhirter wrote this feature on her for VBM before this 2019 NCAA Tournament.

She led Washington with 597 kills (4.63/set) and hit .280 to go along with a second-best 33 aces.

Kara Bajema strikes against Canada/Volleyball World Photo

It continued, prompting Kiraly to note, “I like what she can do at the service line.”

She played in Italy in 2020-21 and was Casalmaggiore’s third top scorer.

“I wouldn’t have changed that for anything in the world,” Bajema said. “Being introduced to some of the best volleyball players in the world is a great way to start. And it was like, OK, this is where I am and this is the norm and this is where I need to get to.

“My choice to go to Poland was that I needed to develop a bit and I needed to step back and I think that’s exactly what happened. I had a great coach ( Stephane Antiga) who coached me and a good team by my side, I think I was able to grow and develop my game.

“We had good chances in the Champions League. I wanted to give it a good try and we did really well. It was awesome.”

Bajema said one of his improvement goals was to pass.

“Hitting has always been my strong point, but I wanted to improve a bit in each skill set or get a bit more confident and take it to the next level,” Bajema said. “Every year, in college and after college, I see myself growing a little bit and I think that’s cool. It’s a bit like a victory. You want a little more every year.

Playing for Rzeszow, which is about 200 miles south of Warsaw, made traveling difficult, “and that was probably the hardest part,” Bajema said.

“It was good and different. Italian volleyball is Italian volleyball, so there has definitely been a bit of a change.

“I had a good team around me.

Throughout last season, it was hard not to pay attention to what was happening in Ukraine, Poland’s western neighbour.

“We were only 40 minutes away (from Ukraine). We were one of the closest towns to the border,” Bajema said. “They brought a lot of American troops to our town and a lot of people from our town helped.Our town was where people came to help and so we had a lot of foreigners.

“I was never scared, but there was a time when I had to be really realistic if I was going to be in danger. We followed the news. You kind of have to carry on day by day and I never felt in danger, but I wasn’t going to be naïve to what was happening.

It’s been a year for the 24-year-old, culminating in his appearance on the United States roster.

“It’s weird because it’s always been like a dream of mine that I never knew if it would happen,” Bajema said. “You think about those things, but you also know how hard it is to get there and I think for me, I always look at the best and I don’t want to stop until I get there.

“I love the grind, I love getting better and it’s so much fun and so rewarding. Sometimes I have to step back and think, oh, you’re playing for Team USA, you’re playing for Team USA. “one of the best coaches in the world. It’s a really cool opportunity and I think they’ve done a great job with this program.

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Kara Bajema strikes against Japan/Volleyball World Photo
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