Story By Chelsea Howard, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With non-conference play behind the women's volleyball team and a week to refine their skills, the No. 1 ranked team will open up Big Ten conference play at home against Michigan State on Friday at 7 p.m. and Michigan on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Coming off of the Penn State Classic, the team had a chance to learn from non-conference play before being matched up against a conference strong in depth. The players took the opportunity in more relaxed matches to stay focused on their habits.
"We're not just thinking about the weekend when we play non-conference matches," redshirt freshman Paulina Prieto Cerame said. "We're thinking about December and how we want to win a national championship. Since last spring, we've been thinking about our habits. Whatever habits we have everyday is what's going to affect us in the long run so creating good habits and staying focused is enough motivation."
With eight Big Ten teams ranked in the top 25, the value of each practice and match goes up requiring the players to be focused on the goals they set at the beginning of the season.
"There's increased value in all of the matches, in all of the practices," head coach Russ Rose said. "Once you get into the Big Ten, what separates the Big Ten teams is all of the teams have received great commitments from their university, which resulted in great coaches, challenging facilities, and big crowds on the road."
With the increased commitment to the sport of volleyball in the Big Ten, some of the players that Penn State will compete against throughout the rest of the season have taken a recruiting trip to State College and have seen Rec Hall from a different perspective.
"There's players on every team that we play that we have recruited," Rose said. "That's probably the big change. Everybody has players that if they have a good night - they could win. That's the challenge for every team. We pose the same threats to other teams. We have some strong players that if they have a good night that enhances our chance for winning."
Penn State will face some of the top players in the nation giving the team an advantage when it comes time to look at their ultimate goal of winning another national championship. The opportunity to compete against top 20 teams in two nights during a week sets the Big Ten conference a part from other conferences across the country.
"The greatest advantage that I've always felt about the Big Ten since we joined it is with the existing structure of the NCAA tournament, you play back to back nights against top 20 teams and it really prepares you for later on in the year," Rose said. "If you're hosting an invitational you can really relax, but if you travel it's a whole different atmosphere."
When it comes time to prepare for conference play, there's a shift in the mindset going into each match. With players who have been on national championship teams, Rose relies on these players to step up into leadership roles in crucial ways.
"Experienced players have working knowledge of competition in Big Ten and know how big all of the teams are both at home and on the road. We have to depend on the veteran players to not only do what they need to do but to be ready and assist the younger players to help make sure they're ready to come out of the gate strong."
Senior Deja McClendon has been on national championship teams and knows how to stay calm under high-pressure situations. Sharing her experiences, the outside hitter takes the approach of taking care of her own emotions and making sure they reflect positively for the younger players.
"A lot of helping (the underclassmen) is based on how you are and how you act," McClendon said. "If I stay smiling even though we're losing then the freshman think okay we're good, we don't need to worry as opposed to if we were to freak out. Whenever they have questions, we are the first people they ask because we've been through it before and we try to give them pointers that we've learned."
Taking guidance from McClendon is redshirt freshman Prieto Cerame. Since the upperclassmen have had up to three years competing against the same teams, they have a better idea of what to expect and how to approach the weekend.
"It helps a lot because the upperclassmen have already played against these teams and tell us how it's going to be," Prieto Cerame said. "They help in the sense that they don't see it any differently, they just know that no matter what we have to be at our best. It's just go time now."
This weekend as they open conference play against no. 15 Michigan State and no. 10 Michigan, the Nittany Lions will experience playing against highly athletic teams ready to compete.
"Both teams have a great roster coming back from last year," Rose said. "Michigan made it to the final four. They're playing great and they have a great setter and all-American outside hitters. They only replaced one player. Michigan State is an incredible physical team. Both are good home or away so we'll have to be ready to play."
VIDEO: Nittany Lions Set to Shift into Conference Matches
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