Watching the No. 1-ranked U.S. women's volleyball team win its three FIVB World Grand Prix matches at Long Beach State, it was hard to say which was better choreographed, the team's maneuvers on the court or the players' celebrations on the sideline.
In international play, substitutes stand in a box at the corner of the court. About three years ago, veteran setter Courtney Thompson took it upon herself to make the box a fun place to be.
"We used to be super serious, and you'd get in the game and you're cold and stiff, so I was like, this isn't working," Thompson said. "We just try to mix it up and celebrate our teammates' success. When we're jumping around, we're having fun and we're keeping it light, but then when we go in you feel that fire and you feel aggressive. It's fun."
Every point scored by Team USA during victories over No. 11 Germany, No. 5 Japan and No. 10 Turkey this weekend was promptly followed by a coordinated routine in the box. Which routine it would be depended on who scored the point or how it was scored. Even video replay challenges got their dance.
"We'll be loud and obnoxious to cheer for one of our teammates. This game is supposed to be fun no matter what level you play at," Thompson said. "We're getting quite the reputation, I think, but that's who we are and that's how we play. It's working for us so far."
According to star middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo, the squad's camaraderie is what separates them from the U.S. teams of years past that have failed to win an Olympic gold.
"I always say our team in 2012 [which won silver] was very, very talented, but we weren't necessarily the best team and teammates," Akinradewo said. "This group is really special. There's a lot of love and respect for one another."
"Special" is certainly a word that could be applied to the team's antics in the box.
"Yeah, it's definitely not the standard. Our team is pretty unique," Akinradewo said, laughing. "But it's fun. It gives our team on the court a lot of energy, and it gives our team on the bench the feeling that they have a purpose."
Though its main purpose is fun, the box is not exempt from the team's competitive nature.
"If anyone in the box isn't performing well, they get called out," Thompson said. "Usually after the game, we'll say the box was on point tonight, or if we need to pick it up, we'll have that talk too. We usually give out a box MVP award."
Thompson said libero Natalie Hagglund earned the box MVP in the team's 3-0 victory over Turkey on Sunday night. She also said that fans can expect to see the same enthusiastic celebrations, or perhaps even better ones, from Team USA's box in Rio de Janeiro.
"Everywhere we go, we try to bring it. And we try to get better too," Thompson said. "We can't just cruise. We're improving our cheers all the time."