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A Special Senior Class

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By Tom Shively, student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Last weekend's senior night ceremony was an emotional one in Rec Hall, as Penn State women's volleyball held its annual senior night Saturday, Nov. 4 to recognize the contributions of eight seniors who have helped to continue the longstanding tradition of excellence.

Simone Lee, Haleigh Washington, Ali Frantti, Heidi Thelen, Abby Detering, Lainy Pierce, Clare Powers and Jen Halterman have accumulated no shortage of accolades in their four years at Penn State, with time still remaining to shape how they're remembered at Penn State.

Starting and Finishing at the Top
Three years ago, five of the eight seniors from the group were on the roster when Penn State captured its seventh NCAA title in program history. Both Frantti and Washington earned conference and national recognition, making significant contributions throughout the 2014 title run.

Being on the roster allowed the group of five Nittany Lions to learn from Penn State All-Americans like Micha Hancock, Aiyana Whitney and Megan Courtney. Immensely helping the development process of the then-freshmen, it provided an opportunity to play alongside elite teammates who imparted the dedication it would take to one day lead this program to yet another NCAA national championship.

Fast forward three seasons and a couple of NCAA regional appearances, and the Nittany Lions now find themselves right back at the top of the volleyball world, winners of 13 straight matches and sitting at the top of the AVCA top 25 coaches poll for the fourth week in a row.

"It's an honor to get the respect from the coaches who are voting that they think your team warrants their vote," head coach Russ Rose said.

Opposing coaches have had good reason to keep their eyes on the Nittany Lions, as Frantti, Lee and Washington have all eclipsed 1,000 kills in their respective careers this season. It's a rare feat to see three individuals on the same team all reach the 1,000-kill milestone in the same year, but it speaks to the consistency and work ethic of all three Nittany Lions.

Lee made perhaps the biggest jump toward reaching the milestone, emerging as an offensive force for the Nittany Lion to surpass the mark.

Speaking of rare feats, Washington won her fourth Big Ten Player of the Week award two weeks ago. It was the ninth time in her career that she has won the honor, which passes Megan Hodge and Nicole Fawcett for the most in Penn State history as well as second-most in Big Ten history.

Washington also tallied her 500th career block a couple weeks ago, making her the newest member of the 1,000 kill-500 block club, one of seven Nittany Lions in program history to do so. 

As a middle, Washington doesn't always get the chances that Frantti and Lee do on the outside, but she's made the most of her opportunities.

Last Saturday's Scene
A large crowd came out to Rec Hall Saturday to honor those eight seniors, and the Nittany Lions rewarded the crowd with a three-set sweep against Rutgers.

"It was a nice opportunity for the seniors to be recognized for their years of commitment and time spent on the volleyball team," Rose said. 

For Washington, the night gave her a chance to reflect on playing in Rec Hall and how memorable her time has been as a Nittany Lion. 

"My mentality was just trying to revel in the atmosphere. You don't always get the chance to appreciate Rec Hall and I really tried to appreciate the band and the fans that night. Just living in the moment and being in that environment is what I took from that night," Washington said.

Having seen many of these seniors develop since their high school days, Rose has developed close bonds with each member of the 2017 senior class. It's always difficult for him to say goodbye to seniors but he focuses on what he has done in his time with them and how he has shaped them to go out and be positive contributors in the world.

"You know them for almost half of their life and then it's time for them to go," Rose said. "You hope you made a positive impact on their development. My goal is to always make them a little tougher and a little bit better of a communicator. I hope for great things from all of them."

Not Done Yet
Although senior night was this past weekend, there are still two more matches left at Rec Hall and almost a month of the regular season still remaining. Factor in the NCAA Tournament and the Nittany Lions could be playing as far as into late December. 

"It's not bittersweet because we have so much left in the season," Pierce said. "We have six regular season games left and hopefully six more. My dad was able to make it and it was really cool."

While the seniors are happy to be recognized, they stressed the importance of staying focused and disciplined throughout the rest of the year so they can achieve their ultimate goal - winning a national championship.

"There are always ways we can improve, we just want to keep going up from here," Thelen said.

That never-give-up attitude and desire to strive for perfection is exactly what these Penn State seniors saw three years ago, and exactly what could push them to bookend championships.

"I always say to the seniors, 'you're judged by your last year," Rose said.

Fresh off a straight set win at Iowa, top-ranked Penn State returns to action Saturday against Maryland, hosting the Terps at 7 p.m. in Rec Hall.

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