By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.- Top-ranked Penn State has jumped out to a 7-1 start in Big Ten play and part of its success has come from the momentum of a raucous atmosphere inside Rec Hall on a consistent basis. Penn State has played six of its first eight conference matchups at home, seizing the opportunity to ascend to a tie for first place atop the Big Ten standings and a No. 1 ranking in the latest AVCA poll.
A home-heavy opening to the conference slate inevitably leads to challenges on the road in the later part of the season and the Nittany Lions are about to enter into one of those critical stretches.
Penn State plays four of its next five games away from Rec Hall, including trips to No. 17 Purdue, Indiana, Illinois and No. 18 Michigan State over the next two weekends.
The lone home game for the Nittany Lions? A top 10 showdown with No. 8 Wisconsin next Wednesday.
"The schedule is what it is," head coach Russ Rose said. "Coaches are responsible for the preseason schedule, the conference is responsible for the conference schedule and the NCAA volleyball committee is responsible for the postseason schedule."
Alongside the Nittany Lions in the NCAA standings for highest home attendance, Purdue is also consistently among the top 10.
The Big Ten as a whole sets the standard for NCAA volleyball attendance, averaging just more than 2,800 fans per match all together, with four programs averaging nearly 4,000 fans per home outing.
"The Big Ten, as always, is leading the nation in attendance, so you know wherever you go there's going to be a pretty strong fanbase," Rose said.
The Nittany Lions don't have much time to relax after their home match against the Badgers either, as they'll head to Illinois the very next day.
"Illinois is one of the best unranked teams in the country, Rose said. "We'll do our best to try and put a game plan together to be ready to go."
Penn State does have some experience playing in Champaign already this year, sweeping Colorado and Stanford in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge. The Nittany Lions have also already seen Illinois, taking down the Illini in three competitive sets at Rec Hall in late September.
Just as daunting as the games themselves is the travel schedule, with teams typically playing on back-to- back nights at different venues. Some program have the luxury of chartered flights, cutting out commercial airport traffic, but that hasn't always been the case.
When the Nittany Lions went to Texas A&M earlier this year, they weren't quite sure of their travel plans until shortly before they left, based on the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey affecting the entire region.
"The trip to Texas was really long and we didn't have the luxury of chartering," senior outside hitter Heidi Thelen said. "Traveling takes a toll on everyone's body but we're used to it. A lot of us, since we're seniors, are used to it and know what to do and how to prepare for travel."
Coupled with their visit to Illinois the following week, it helped the Nittany Lions prepare for this stretch coming up.
"Traveling to places like that just gave us a little more experience coming into these games. I think we're confident in where we are right now," sophomore libero Kendall White said.
Rose agreed that the veteran leadership of the team guided by its senior leaders is a huge advantage whenever Penn State goes on the road.
"We have some older players, so I'd like to think they've at least been around the block and hopefully they'll be able to handle the challenges of being on the road," Rose said.
An added wrinkle of this particular road trip is that aforementioned number next to Penn State's name. The No. 1 ranking comes with knowing that most teams will put forth their best effort to try to be the team to knock off the best in the country. Just last week, then-No. 1 Florida (at the time the only undefeated team in the country) lost at home to Kentucky."Being No. 1 and being Penn State gives us a target on our back," Thelen said. "We're just focused on how we can improve. It's better to be No. 1 at the end of the season than in the middle of the season."