Nittany Lions Begin
By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State women's volleyball's three most important weeks of the season are upon them, as the team begins its six-game quest to bring the program what would be an NCAA-best eighth national championship.
When the bracket was released Sunday, the Nittany Lions found themselves at No. 1 overall for the first time since 2012, meaning they have the potential to host all the way through the first four rounds of the tournament.
"Being at home has its benefits," head coach Russ Rose said. "Everyone's familiar with the surroundings and there's a certain element with the crowd."
Friday marks the the 28th consecutive time Penn State has hosted at least the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament as the Nittany Lions are one of only two teams in the country to have participated in every NCAA DI Women's Volleyball Tournament.
The announcement of the bracket came on the heels of the Penn State's 17th Big Ten title following wins on the road against top 15 teams Minnesota and Wisconsin last weekend. Penn State finished the season at 17-1 in conference play, with the lone loss coming in the conference opener against Nebraska, now the tournament's No. 5 overall seed.
It was the first conference title in four years for the Nittany Lions, something that didn't go unnoticed by Rose and his staff.
"Coach liked to remind us that we hadn't won a Big Ten championship as a class, so it was nice to get that weight off our shoulders," senior middle blocker Haleigh Washington said.
Rose has credited the Big Ten on being a challenging conference all season, something he feels has tremendously helped his team prepare for what's ahead in the NCAA Tournament.
"There's an advantage that Big Ten teams have across the board. They were all exposed to the same demands," Rose said. "As I said at the beginning of the season, I think there were six or seven teams that could compete for a national championship."
The Big Ten sent eight teams in total to the NCAA Tournament, with No. 7 overall Minnesota joining Nebraska and Penn State as the conference's seeded teams.
Turning their attention to the bracket itself, the Nittany Lions find some familiar competition in the first round with Howard, a team they beat in the NCAA Tournament two years ago as well as in a nonconference outing last year.
"I love the way Howard plays. They're very enthusiastic, athletic and quick," Rose said. "They're not afraid of playing good teams and competing and they're not just here for a photo op."
Should Penn State beat Howard, the Nittany Lions will face the winner of VCU/Pittsburgh in the second round. The Pennsylvania rivals met just last year in the exact same round, with the Nittany Lions pulling out a 3-1 victory.
"Not only did we play Pitt in the tournament last year, we've played them in the spring for a number of years. That team won a power five conference so they have our attention," Rose said.
The ACC champions will have their hands full with VCU in the first round, a team that won 30 games this year.
While Penn State would be favored in a potential matchup against either one of those teams, the Nittany Lions stressed only the mindset of focusing on the task at hand, something they have harped on all season.
"Our goal is to play one match at a time, not to look forward and predict who we are going to play. I've never been that way," Rose said. "All of the teams in the NCAA Tournament have probably won six in a row. Looking at that, there's teams that can get hot and win games. Can they win six games and compete for a national championship? That's to be determined."
The goal all season has been a national championship, and this year's team differs from the last because of veteran leadership. Five of Penn State's eight seniors were on the 2014 team that took home the title, but part of the new challenge is getting the younger Nittany Lions on the same page.
"We're lucky because we have a very mature squad as is," Washington said. "We have a lot of seniors and we'll make sure to keep an eye on the younger players. We'll meet at the net after practice and just check in on the little things like sleeping, drinking water, going to the trainers."
Many of the seniors have obviously been there, and winning a national championship in year one has trained them into focusing on little else outside of success.
"Winning a national championship was definitely in the backs of our minds and something we were always looking toward," senior outside hitter Simone Lee said. "Our last two years didn't play out the way we wanted to and it puts a fire in our belly. Coming off that accomplishment our freshman year, it's something we strive for and we know what it feels like. We all know that every day in practice we have to give that extra one percent to get back there."
Penn State has enjoyed great success as a program throughout its history under Rose and for the seniors, it's time to add another piece to their legacy.
"You always want to leave a program better than you found it, which is tough when you're coming in freshman year after they won a national championship and you win it again," Washington said. "It's hard to bring a program that is already sky-high higher than that, but if a Big Ten championship and a national championship is something we can do, obviously we're going to leave a really good program."
Friday's match against Howard begins at 7:30 p.m., soon after the conclusion of the VCU/Pittsburgh game at 5 p.m. The two winners will face off at 7 p.m. Saturday night.
Should the Nittany Lions win, they will host and play in the regional rounds December 8 and 9 r back at Rec Hall. The other three seeded teams in Penn State's quarter of the bracket who could potentially travel to University Park if the seeds hold, include No. 8 Washington, No. 9 Creighton and No. 16 Wichita State.
Thelen Bringing Versatility
By Will Desautelle, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - On Friday night in Rec Hall, Heidi Thelen will be one of eight seniors for Penn State to take the court for the first round of the NCAA Tournament and begin their quest to win an eighth national title under head coach Russ Rose.
The top-seeded Nittany Lions will enter the court to warm up with the same pregame ritual they've done all year, as the team will slowly rock Thelen back and forth on the center line during the final seconds of their wait to get on the court for hitting lines.
This untitled ritual has been a long pre-warm-up tradition in Penn State women's volleyball and the torch was passed onto Thelen when she arrived to Happy Valley four years ago.
"Honestly I have no idea where that idea came from, but ever since I've been a freshman, I've been doing that," Thelen said. "I was the new incoming freshman and they chose me for whatever reason and we've been doing it every game ever since."
Playing for Penn State had always been a lifelong dream for the Edgewood, Kentucky, native, as she grew up watching the Nittany Lions on TV over the years, hoping to one day help continue Penn State's tradition as one of the premier women's volleyball programs in the country.
"I had been going to the camps ever since I was a freshman in high school, and I got to know all of the players and recruits," Thelen said. "You really just see how hard people work and how good you can become. I think the coaches do a great job of pushing you to your limits."
Thelen was recruited to Penn State as a middle blocker, but the Nittany Lions were in need of a threat on the right side last season, prompting Rose to move her to a position that she had no experience playing.
While a challenging transition, Thelen's humility and relentless training at the position paid off this year, as she finished her final regular season second on the team in blocks and fourth on the team in kills. She was also named an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention honoree earlier in the week.
"It's not really about yourself, it's about what the team needs," Thelen said. "A lot of aspects of the game are different, but the coaches taught me very well, and I actually like [right side] a lot now."
The transition has not only strengthened Thelen's volleyball IQ and transformed her into a more versatile player, but it has also made Penn State as a team much more difficult to plan for.
She points out that having her on the right side allows them to run several combination plays with middle blockers Haleigh Washington and Tori Gorrell, making them unpredictable offensively. Having this threat has also opened things up for their two senior outside hitters in Simone Lee and Ali Frantti.
With a plethora of experience and veteran leadership on this year's team, many of Penn State's key contributors have grown very comfortable playing together over the last few years.
"We've been with each other so long and know what we're capable of, so I think it's a good way to be able to trust each other, stay together, and show the younger players what we can do and how much we're capable of," Thelen said.
The abundance of senior leadership particularly came in handy, during what was arguably Penn State's most important moment during the regular season. On the first match of Big Ten play, Nebraska swept Penn State at Rec Hall.
The Nittany Lions, who were undefeated before the loss, would not lose another game in the regular season, tallying 19 consecutive victories en route to a share of the Big Ten title.
"We all knew we work way too hard for us to lose that way," Thelen said. "After that loss we all got together, and it motivated us to keep working harder ever since."
As valuable as this senior class has been to Rose, there's still the postseason left for the group to make a final lasting addition to their legacy.
"The goal has always been to win a national championship and we all know that this is the last time we all will ever play together," Thelen said. "We want to end this season on a high note and know that what we've accomplished these four years is pretty amazing."
Penn State on paper has as good of a chance as anyone to take home the crown, but Thelen says it will take an entire team effort and plenty of mental toughness for them to do so.
"We need our key players to step up, and others who are not technically considered as key players," Thelen said. "We are a versatile team, so just believing that we can do it and knowing how bad we want it will be key for us."
Thelen and this senior class has achieved a lot, but they can cement their legacy into Penn State women's volleyball history with another championship run in the NCAA Tournament.
"They are terrific people," Rose said. "The goal is always to leave the program at a better place. All of them are great young people, they're all great students and great representatives of their families and Penn State."
Penn State will need six more wins to bring the national title back to Happy Valley. Thelen will be one of the key pieces that could take them there.