By Tom Shively,
GoPSUsports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It's both a luxury and a mark of program consistency when a loss in September is thought of as a setback. That is the case for Penn State women's volleyball, having experienced its first setback of the season last Friday.
Playing some of their best volleyball of the season leading up to the Nebraska matchup, the Nittany Lions met a worthy adversary in the then-No. 14 Cornhuskers.
Although able to come back the next day and notch a victory against Iowa, the opening weekend of conference play proved the legitimacy and competitiveness of the Big Ten from top to bottom in head coach Russ Rose's eyes.
"I've been saying the same thing for a while about the strength of the Big Ten," Rose said. "Three of the top four teams in the country last week were in the Big Ten, and three of us lost. All of us lost at home to other teams in the conference. It's just a reflection of how good the conference is."
Minnesota and Wisconsin fell as well, both losing at home to Michigan State over the weekend. The Big Ten now has seven teams in the AVCA Top 25 Poll and four ranked in the top 10, the most of any conference.
"I think the conference season is going to be a really interesting and exciting one for the fans and a very challenging one for the schools, and the coaches for sure," Rose said.
As the focus shifts to Illinois and Northwestern this weekend, the Nittany Lions are working hard in practice to strengthen what they felt was exposed last weekend.
Unable to establish the back row consistently, with a couple of critical service errors in key moments, proved out of the ordinary from otherwise strong and steady performances earlier in the year.
"We've been working on serving really aggressively since preseason," senior Haleigh Washington said. "That's something that coach really emphasizes in the Big Ten especially. You need to be a good serve receive team and a good pass team. In the Nebraska game, it really showed that we did not serve aggressively. We weren't serving hard enough to get them out of position for our benefit."
While a loss can certainly be humbling, the Nittany Lions are taking the weekend as an opportunity to succeed in the areas they are working to improve.
"We're just trying to be strong the entire way through," junior Bryanna Weiskircher said. "We weren't ourselves against Nebraska and I'm not really sure why, but there are a lot of doors open now. We really have to work for every game, every match."
The Nittany Lions now have a clear picture of what it will take to win in the Big Ten moving forward.
"Every weekend in the Big Ten, everyone is beating up on each other and it's definitely something where last weekend opened up everyone's eyes as to how competitive this entire season is going to be," Weiskircher said.
Settling into conference play also allows Penn State to gain valuable experience for some of the younger members of the team, competing against some of the top programs in the country every night.
"We're all here for a purpose and we all have a specific mindset and goal - winning a national championship," senior Simone Lee said. "We're making sure us seniors are really helping out the younger girls if they have questions. I think it makes a huge difference in terms of team camaraderie."
Illinois comes to town this weekend with a new look, as former head coach Kevin Hambly took over as head coach at Stanford last offseason. Chris Tamas is now at the helm of the Illini program, in his first year as a head coach. Tamas has experience in the Big Ten as a member of coaching staffs at Nebraska and Minnesota.
Penn State will have a bit of a planning edge, having already seen Illinois earlier this season, although not meeting on the court.
"We saw Illinois play because we were in the same tournament with Stanford and Colorado, and they haven't lost since we saw them play," Rose said. "I think Illinois has the best setter in the conference and is arguably the best blocking team."
Northwestern comes in on a three-game losing streak, but they were competitive in losses to then-No. 13
Purdue and aforementioned Illinois last weekend.
"They had some great wins in the preseason and they have some players on their team that we all recruited and we all know how good they are," Rose said.Penn State looks to return to form as Friday's match begins at 7:30 p.m. in Rec Hall. Saturday's match has been moved back 30 minutes to 7:30 p.m. to accommodate for the home football game against Indiana.