By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - For the second time in 2017, Penn State women's volleyball is celebrating a major milestone, as senior outside hitter Simone Lee reached 1,000 career kills in Friday's victory at Ohio State.
Lee is the 27th Nittany Lion to reach the plateau, with senior outside hitter Ali Frantti having accomplished the feat in the first week of the season against West Virginia.
Frantti and Lee have a special bond that dates back to club volleyball in high school. The two played on the same club team for a year before arriving at Penn State early their freshman year alongside fellow early enrollee Lainy Pierce.
"It was nice to have someone else be there with you during that time," Frantti said. "It made the transition a lot easier."
Together, Lee and Frantti have developed a clear chemistry on the court, which Frantti attributes in large part to their connected roots.
"We're very familiar with each other on the court and she's a really good teammate," Frantti said. "We have each other's backs."
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Lee's feat is the amount of time it took her to reach the milestone. Bolstered by a strong junior campaign, Lee more than doubled her individual single season kill totals from her freshman and sophomore seasons.
As a freshman on the 2014 NCAA national championship team, Lee shared playing time with former Nittany Lion All-American upperclassmen Megan Courtney and Aiyana Whitney, both who are now training with USA Volleyball.
In 2016, Lee emerged as a key cog in the offense, leading the team with 503 kills on the year, marking the third-highest single season kill total in Penn State history during the 25-point scoring era. Recording at least 10 kills in 28 of 24 matches, she totaled seven outings of 20-or more kills on the way to All-America honors.
"Certainly Simone has improved significantly each year that she's been here," head coach Russ Rose said. "She was an All-American last year and I think she's headed toward that again this year. She's a great offensive player and a really strong net player."
Now in her senior season, Lee is once again pacing the Nittany Lions in kills, already with 225 at about the midway point in the season.
"I don't think we'd anticipate winning big matches without Simone being one of our main contributors," Rose said.
In the middle of a season defined by a chase for a championship, sometimes the individual accolades can take a back seat, part of the team-first attitude installed for so many years under Rose's brilliance.
Still, the team sees the accomplishment as a fitting way to celebrate a special player.
"It's always great seeing success," senior middle blocker Haleigh Washington said. "Nobody really knew what happened and then we were like 'Oh my gosh, Simone that's amazing and we are so proud of you.' It's great to see that she's grown so much in her time here and having done it in the amount of time that she did it is crazy."
As any great leader of a team does, Lee is staying focused on the team's ultimate goal of finishing the season on top.
"It's exciting, but it's not the whole goal," Lee said. "It's just something else that happens but that's not the end goal for me. Obviously, we're still playing and not done yet."
While she may be laser-focused during game time, Lee brings plenty of humor and positive energy to the team off the court.
"I've enjoyed my interactions with Simone," Rose said. "Her eyes light up, she has a great smile. She's receptive to banter and kidding and I've enjoyed that. I'll miss Simone Lee being gone, I've enjoyed my time with her."
Her teammates shared the same sentiments.
"Simone is just a ray of sunshine and she has a very infectious smile," Washington said. "On the court, she's very serious and down to earth and focused. She wants to take care of business. Off the court, she's very bubbly, loves to be in the sun and loves to drink tea."
Washington herself isn't too far away from the 1,000-kill club, which would complete the very rare feat of having three players reach that mark in the same season. She is less than 50 kills away, but doesn't really think about it that much because of her position.
If anything, being a middle blocker makes Washington's potential accomplishment even more impressive.
"It's tough for middles to get a thousand kills, just because we're not in for all six rotations," Washington said. "They (outside hitters) swing more in the back row and they are the more out of system options."
Washington, Lee and Frantti are all set to
return home from the road with the rest of the Nittany Lions this weekend. Penn
State hosts Michigan State Friday evening before wrapping up the weekend
welcoming Michigan to Rec Hall Saturday night.