By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State cruised to a 10-0 mark in nonconference play, including two victories over defending national champion Stanford and seven straight-set wins.
However, that's now in the rearview mirror, as the Nittany Lions shift their focus to Big Ten opponents and taking home a conference championship.
Conference play presents some unique challenges, as the talent level across the league is among the highest in the country. Teams are more familiar with one another, which can lead to more unpredictability night in and night out.
"The Big Ten Conference is filled with great players," head coach Russ Rose said. "Nine of the 14 schools are ranked or receiving votes this week in the coaches' poll, so it's clearly the strongest conference in the country."
Rose also stressed a need for balance in preparing for Big Ten teams based on what has happened in the past while also understanding that turnover from year to year can always be a defining factor.
"Certainly everybody is more familiar with their conference opponents, but every year it's different," Rose said. "Even when you have a majority of your players returning, you'd like to think you are still making change and getting better."
Any team in the Big Ten has the talent to compete with any other team, and the Nittany Lions emphasized the importance of taking the season one game at a time, not focusing too much on the future.
"In the Big Ten, every team is very good, so we have to play every team like it's the national championship match," senior right side hitter Heidi Thelen said. "You have to play hard, grind through it and push every point."
The Nittany Lions open up the conference slate against Nebraska this weekend in a rematch of last year's NCAA Tournament regional semifinal match. The Cornhuskers outlasted Penn State on that night in a five-set thriller on their way to an NCAA regional championship.
While that loss may have ended the season for Penn State, the Nittany Lions are completely focused on the upcoming challenge, understanding that two very different teams will be walking into Rec Hall on Friday night.
Rose touched on the challenge of preparing for a team like Nebraska, noting that so many individuals on the roster can cause damage.
"Once you get into the Big Ten, every team you play is loaded with players that have the ability to go off in a match," Rose said. "That's what makes the conference and all the teams you play so challenging."
Nebraska may have graduated starters from last year's Big Ten championship team, but some key players remain from that squad.
"Nebraska has always been a really good serve and pass team, they have one of the best players in the country in (outside hitter Annika Albrecht), who is a great all-around player," Rose said. "Mikaela Foecke may be the best attacker in the conference. We'll have our hands full with them."
For two of Penn State's freshmen, conference games are a unique opportunity that they have not yet faced.
"With each team, there's a sense of grit," right side hitter Cami May said. "Whether it's home or away, there's so much energy in the gyms."
Excited for the challenge and the intensity of each atmosphere, just last week May and outside hitter Michaela Putnicki experienced a sneak peek into what playing at Rec Hall is like. For both, the sense of community and pride that comes with playing for Penn State was among a top takeaway.
"All the fans are super crazy, they just love Penn State and are all about it," Putnicki said. "You can tell at our games everyone is excited to be there."
The early conference schedule is kind to the Nittany Lions, as their first four matches this weekend and next, come at Rec Hall.
"It's going to be awesome starting off at home, we have all our fans, the boosters, the band, all there supporting us," Thelen said.
No. 2 Penn State welcomes No. 14 Nebraska Friday at 8 p.m. to kick off the Big Ten slate before hosting Iowa Saturday at 4 p.m. in Rec Hall.