By Kelsey Detweiler, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With an overall mark of 18-6 and a well-earned conference record of 11-3 heading into another tough weekend of competition, the No. 9 Nittany Lions agreed on one thing.
Members of the squad said that with just five matches left in the 2011-'12
regular season, it's time for the team to make a statement by coming together
and finding leadership on the court.
Penn State hits the road to take on No. 7 Illinois and Northwestern in the weekend. Sophomore libero and defensive specialist Ali Longo said that against such tough competition, especially in the Fighting Illini, she and her teammates are looking to do their best together.
"I think at this part of the season it's more important for us to make sure that together we have a team unity, a team fight and we have to go into every match playing our best," said Longo. "We have to have everybody together, fighting the whole time, and then that way we can put together a good match versus having small lapses anywhere in the game."
The Nittany Lions have already defeated Northwestern once this season, but fell to the Illini just one month ago in a match that went five sets and ended in Illinois' favor.
Longo said that alongside better communication and stronger leadership, the Penn State squad has been working on their back-row line of defense and ball placement.
"We've definitely been working on passing and it's been getting much better," said Longo. "I think that our back-row defense, we could pick up a few more balls here and there, so the tenacity needs to pick up a little bit but other than that I think as long as we're solid the whole time we'll be fine."
Sophomore middle hitter Katie Slay said that another key to a pair of Nittany Lion victories this weekend is the presence of front-row players both offensively and defensively.
"I think it's important for middles to get involved in the offense that way we can kind of free up outside and pin-hitters," said Slay. "I also think it's important for us to set up a solid block to help out the defense."
Slay said that this time last year, she and her teammates knew that it was time to pick up the pace of their play and she plans on doing the same again this season. The sophomore has started in all 24 matches that the Nittany Lions have played this year, and she said that she knows that her team's performance at this point in the season will have a big effect on their future success as a unit.
"I think it's definitely time for us to start playing really strong and consistently because coming out at the end of the year and the end of the Big Tens we want to go strong into the NCAA Tournament," said Slay. "It's important for us to put in some hard work at practice and make sure that during our road matches we're really out on the floor ready to fight."
The middle hitter also acknowledged the intense atmosphere that she and the Nittany Lions will be heading into on Friday night at 7 p.m., when they travel to Champaign, Ill. to face the seventh-ranked team in the country.
"I think it's going to be an exciting atmosphere this weekend, both at Illinois and Northwestern," said Slay. "Illinois has a great student section and fan base so they're going to have a lot of support there so it's important for us to come in, play together as a team and really make sure we have good communication on the court and play hard."
After a split weekend on the road last week, Penn State is looking to add two more wins to its 11-3 Big Ten record outside of Rec Hall yet again. Longo said that she has seen what she and her teammates can do, and largely believes that the ball is literally in their hands.
"I think a lot of it is on our side of the court," said Longo. "I think we determine how the game goes based on how we play."