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Hancock, Nittany Lions Eager to Open Big Ten Play

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By Samantha DelRosso, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Hit the ball three times. Bounce the ball another three times. Place fingers on the seam. Look at the ball out in front. Focus. And toss.

9267385.jpegThese six steps have proven to be key for a successful serve from junior setter Micha Hancock, who had her 200th career ace this past weekend.

"[Getting 200 aces] is cool, but that's not the main focus of my serving. I'm just trying to help the team and move forward with getting better at the actual art of serving," Hancock said.

Head coach Russ Rose said Hancock's serving is a big part of the team's offense and its offensive potential.

"We generate the most points in [the rotations where Hancock is serving], and her serving also has an impact on limiting the other team's offensive structure," Rose said.

Hancock said it's "nice to know" that her serving can take away some of the pressures from the game, be it playing in front of a crowd or having a good opponent on the other side.

"When I come in the huddle after [an ace] everyone is like, 'Cool, we got a free point. Now let's reset and focus on the next one.' It's nice to know that I have the ability to do that," Hancock said.

Hancock added that serving is mostly mental.

"As a team, we have to get more mentally prepared in pressure situations to be able to handle it and get the ball in play," she said.

Hancock and the Nittany Lions will begin conference play this weekend when they host Michigan State and Michigan inside Rec Hall.  The defending Big Ten champions will be seeking their 16th conference title since joining the Big Ten in 1992 when they open on Friday.

"The biggest difference [between non-conference and conference play] is now there is an increased value in all of the matches and in every practice. You need to be ready to play and everybody is going to fight tooth and nail to get a victory. You have to be ready to fight," Rose said.

The Big Ten Conference currently has eight teams in ranked in the top 25 of the AVCA rankings.  In addition to the Nittany Lions, the list includes No. 9 Minnesota, No. 10 Michigan, No. 12 Nebraska, No. 13 Ohio State, No. 15 Michigan State, No. 20 Purdue and No. 24 Illinois.

Rose noted this week that the landscape of college volleyball has evolved in recent seasons.  The west coast conferences used to rule the collegiate volleyball world, but Rose said the Big Ten Conference has become more dominant in recent years with help from the universities themselves.

"What separates the Big Ten is that all of the teams have received great commitments from their universities, which has resulted in great coaches, challenging facilities and big crowds on the road. It's an elevated commitment starting with the universities on down," Rose said.

"The best thing about the Big Ten Conference is that if you don't come ready to play, someone's going to check you. No matter who it is. It comes down to who's ready to play that night," Hancock said.

The Nittany Lions kick things off on Friday against the 15th-ranked Spartans, who enter the match with an 11-1 overall record (7 p.m. in Rec Hall).  Michigan State senior outside hitter Lauren Wicinski had her 2,000th kill last weekend against Eastern Michigan. She is the leader in kills in Division I volleyball, and Coach Rose said Wicinski also has a solid serve.

"Wicinski and Micha were two of the leading servers in the country last year, so we're not the only one who understands the value of a good server," Rose said.

On Saturday, Penn State will face No. 10 Michigan at 7:30 p.m. in Rec Hall.

Michigan (10-1) had four players with double figures in kills in their match against then-No. 24 Ohio last weekend. Senior Jennifer Cross had 18 kills and a .457 hitting percentage.

Hancock's serving will be important against Michigan because limiting Cross's attack attempts can be limited with strong play at the service line.

"Michigan made it to the Final Four. They went to five games with Texas in their semifinal match. They're playing great. They've got a great setter and All-American outside hitters," Rose said.

Hancock said the team has a few things to focus before the Nittany Lions make the transition from non-conference play to conference play this weekend.

"Personally, I have to do a better job of seeing the middle block on the other side so I can get one on one's for my hitters. As a team, getting in a groove serving is probably our biggest thing," she said.

Coach Rose said the team will have to come ready to play.

"Both teams are in the top 15 in the country. Both of them have a great roster coming back from last year. And both teams a very good home or away," said Rose.

"It will be nice to know where we stand, what we need to work on, and what we're good at. [This weekend] going be a challenge, but we need to be prepared. It's going to be nice to foresee what's ahead for us," Hancock said.

Watch the Nittany Lions take on Michigan State (BTN Student U Stream) and Michigan live on the Big Ten Network this weekend. 

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