By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com
student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - For the 15th consecutive year, Penn State women's volleyball has advanced into the NCAA Tournament regional semifinals.
The Nittany Lions are now only four matches away from a national championship, with a chance to move two matches closer this weekend.
For the first time since 2010, Penn State will host third and fourth round matches, meaning it's the first time any of the Nittany Lions on the active roster have been a part of a home regional.
"When you're away for that second weekend, home court advantage does play a factor," senior middle blocker Haleigh Washington said. "There are some very competitive gyms to play in. Being on your own court and sleeping in your own bed is a huge thing."
The University Park regional has a distinct Big Ten flavor, as three of the four teams hail from the conference. The No. 1 Nittany Lions are joined by Missouri, Illinois and Michigan State, all three of whom upended a seeded team in the second round.
"They've made it this far in the tournament, so they're obviously doing something right," Washington said. "No matter what their records are, they're still very good teams. We still need to be ready for them and be prepared for them like we are for any other team."
Overall, six Big Ten teams remain in the bracket, the highest total of any conference.
"It verifies what I said earlier about how strong the conference is and how teams even in the middle of the pack are threats to win the national championship," head coach Russ Rose said.
The Nittany Lions went a combined 4-0 in the regular season against Illinois and Michigan State, but being familiar with an opponent and attempting to beat them for a third time can be a double-edged sword.
"I think it's equal, they're familiar with us as well," Rose said. "They've played each other and are preparing for each other knowing they might get another conference opponent."
Penn State's third round opponent, Missouri, is fresh off a 3-1 victory against No. 16 Wichita State in Wichita. Coming from the SEC, the Tigers are joined by other conference top-four seeds in No. 2 Florida and No. 4 Kentucky.
"They come from a great conference," Rose said. "They've earned their position in the tournament and we need to focus on those facts."
The Nittany Lions know they made some mistakes in last week's victories over Howard and Pittsburgh, and that isn't the type of play that they need to advance in the tournament.
"Our passing was a little bit shaky," Washington said. "There were times when people would come in and be really good, and there were times when they would be really bad. Following the game plan is something we need to focus on a little bit better as well."
The Nittany Lions improved from Friday to Saturday, but losing a set in each of those matches brought out some factors that are going to be important to fix moving forward.
"We played much better Saturday night than we did Friday night and we're going to have to play better this week," Rose said. "I would think that's standard across the board for everybody in the tournament. If you don't play better, someone is going to beat you."
Keeping the ultimate end goal in mind, it's one that's especially important to the senior class.
"Even if you play well, there's no guarantee that you're going to win," Rose said. "If you don't play well, especially because you're distracted, then you have a lifetime to look back and realize you missed a great opportunity to do something with these people."
Limiting distractions and keying in on a laser-like focus is key to the group of seniors who already know what it takes to make it to championship Saturday.
"We really have to focus on doing the small things right," senior outside hitter Simone Lee said. "Those are the things that lead us to being more successful and even more anticipating of things to come."
Somewhat lost in the preparation for the upcoming matches is the fact that this will be the last weekend playing in Rec Hall for eight Penn State seniors.
"It's kind of crazy," senior outside hitter Ali Frantti said. "I was talking to my mom about that today about me potentially only having two games left here. It's going to be kind of emotional but I can't really think about that because of the tournament."
Friday's match is set for 2 p.m. in Rec Hall, also broadcasting live on ESPNU with Michigan State and Illinois following in the later match. The winners of each match will meet in the NCAA regional finals Saturday at 8 p.m. in Rec Hall.
By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Arriving on campus four years ago, Penn State women's volleyball's Nia Reed was just a regular freshman, excited to be on campus and part of a team that had just come off a national championship.
Coming out of high school, she was an All-American and a three-time New Jersey Player of the Year at Immaculate Heart Academy, among a decorated line of Penn State prospects.
Before she could play in any competitive matches, an injury sidelined her for the entire year. Watching her new freshmen teammates succeed around her while she recovered, Reed knew the road back wasn't going to be easy.
She never failed to see the positives in her situation though, as the injury only inspired her to work harder to get back to where she wanted to be.
"It definitely set me back a year, but I did redshirt," Reed said. "It's not like that cost me a year of eligibility. It was a year that I could get stronger and control my skills."
While sidelined, Reed was able to observe some Penn State greats in action, like Micha Hancock, Megan Courtney and Aiyana Whitney. Watching those former Nittany Lions and how they carried themselves taught Reed a lot about what it would take to compete at Penn State.
Seeing the 2014 team eventually take home the program's seventh national championship in 2014, although she did not seeing the court, Reed was still very much a part of the team.
"I learned a lot from that championship year," Reed said. "Even though I couldn't play, coach Rose still let me travel so I learned a lot from that and just sitting on the bench. Players like Micha, Megan and Aiyana, just watching them helped me to learn visually even though I wasn't on the court."
When her sophomore year came around and she was healthy for her redshirt freshman season, her resilience showed. With time, Reed has steadily seen her playing time increase, as well as a consistent rise in her production.
After tallying 29 kills and 11 blocks in her first two full seasons, Reed has accumulated 62 kills in her redshirt junior year to go along with 20 blocks in 23 matches played.
"I've definitely improved my ball control, limiting errors as well," Reed said. "Freshman year, after my injury, there was a lot of time in the weight room and I definitely came back stronger from that."
Now in her fourth year in the program, Reed has built a strong relationship with those in the senior class, those she came to Penn State with. It's a unique relationship, with Reed having an extra year of eligibility remaining, but the intensity with which they attack each practice and each point has not waivered.
"I've learned a lot from them on and off the court," Reed said. "They're great people to be around. We compete everyday front row and we're very close. They're really good people and great competitors. Just to be able to compete with them in the gym every day going hard is a blessing."
That competition and camaraderie has spread throughout the entire team and playing against one another in practice has only strengthened all of them as players, especially Reed.
"She works hard, wants to be good and is certainly our most physical player," head coach Russ Rose said. "I have a lot of confidence in Nia. Otherwise she wouldn't be in the rotation as a player."
Reed's physical play is a large part of why the Nittany Lions are 31-1 on the season and the top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Only four matches away from a national championship, she knows how special it would be to take home a second title in four years.
"It would mean the world to me," Reed said. "I think we're a bookend team and this is my class. But to win it next year and have another chance next year to come back and win it again in my fifth year would be amazing."
It would be one of Reed's defining moments, adding to the team's first Big Ten championship in four years, which has already been locked up.
"Winning the Big Ten title was amazing, definitely because we hadn't done it before and we finally were able to win it. If we hadn't have won, it'd be the first class not to win one, so no pressure," Reed said"
That title has been her favorite memory at Penn State so far, but winning a national championship would surpass that easily.
The challenge of Reed's role is in its inconsistency, as playing behind Ali Frantti, Simone Lee and Simone Lee at outside hitter doesn't always guarantee she will be on the court. When her number is called, Reed always rises to the occasion.
"Coach always says everybody needs to be ready, on or off the court," Reed said. "It's not about who starts the game, it's about who ends it. I'm ready for whatever and I go in and do my best."
Reed's mentality of always being ready has served her well over her career and eventually, it will be time for her to take over as one of the team's main leaders. In true Penn State fashion though, she's just taking the opportunity one game at a time.
"I haven't thought about it that much," she said. "Yeah, my class is leaving me, but I'm grateful for the opportunity to come back another year and to be a leader for this team next year, emotionally, physically and mentally. I'm still focused on what's ahead."