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Nittany Lion Legacy Lives on Despite NCAA Departure

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Penn State women's volleyball saw its 2017 season come to a bitter close Thursday evening. In a back and forth battle that saw everything from highs and lows to even a few head scratching moments, the outcome of the longest national semifinal matchup in NCAA history didn't favor the Nittany Lions.

"I'm not disappointed in the players or the university that I work at," Penn State head coach Russ Rose said. "I am certainly disappointed in, you know, the outcome of the match. I thought the kids played hard. And other than serving and some passing issues, I thought we were competing well in a tough environment."

After turning around at 25-18 loss in the opening set, the Nittany Lions settled in on the game plan and gritted out a pair of tight wins in the second and third sets before pinning the Huskers seemingly right where Penn State had intended to finish it off.  

The Nittany Lions came just one point shy of ending it all in the fourth set, but an error held off the win as the Huskers battled back to force a fifth and deciding frame. 

"I think we clearly had opportunities to win the match, but we didn't win the match," Rose said. "You recognize the efforts of the other guys and this business and you appreciate the efforts of your seniors, and we had a lot of kids that were seniors. Certain programs get judged by winning national championships and not just their day-to-day effort. The efforts that we've had over the course of time have placed us into a little different area." 

True to any Rose coached team, the Nittany Lions would not go down in an NCAA Tournament outing without a fight, weathering their fair share of swinging momentum shifts made all the most emphatic by the force of a record-setting crowd of nearly 19,000, clad in mostly red. 

"I thought there would be times when we were up and they would get back into it and then it would be really close at the end and then we'd be battling for deuce games," senior first team All-American Haleigh Washington said. "I think we had a lot of great fight at the end but it just isn't enough. You can't have fight and make a lot of errors, it just doesn't work."

Untimely errors came at seemingly the costliest moments, as the Husker defense narrowed the margin of error to the tiniest of slices for Penn State, keeping everything off the floor and forcing the Nittany Lions out of system with pressure from the service line.

In sets two, three and four, Penn State shot out to at least a 3-point lead in the early part of the frame before Nebraska came storming back to even the score before taking the Nittany Lions the distance. 

"I think we started off strong in a lot of our games, we had a lot of early leads, but I think we let those runs get away," Washington said. "We had to get that lead and maintain that lead and go back and forth and swing until the end of the game. Instead we get the early leads and they get to the spot and they get the run. That can't happen in this level and this game. They have to continue to sideout and hold the lead. It was just something we let slip away."

Perhaps no momentum shift was larger than the last, as a Husker kill sparked a 5-0 run that flipped a once 6-4 Penn State advantage into a 9-6 Nebraska lead.

"We were leading up until 7," Washington said. "It's not like the momentum was completely gone and they ran away with it in the fifth game. We were still battling but just couldn't hold on to that lead and maintain it."

Back-to-back kills from All-Americans Simone Lee and Ali Frantti proved not enough as Nebraska closed out a 15-11 win in the fifth set to end the match.  

More than the obvious sting of the final score, Penn State volleyball will forever have the contributions of yet another highly decorated senior class to reflect on long after this year's NCAA national champion is crowned.

Each blazing their own path to greatness across the last four years, Penn State's trio of All-Americans in Lee, Washington and Frantti close out their careers in the blue and white with more than 1,000 career kills, having scaled the record books and collected a vast variety of honors and awards along the way.

Their legacy won't be defined by the final score but rather by the things they've learned along the way, the joy they've brought to their coaches, the community and of course, the teammates they've impacted forever.

"Haleigh has definitely been the biggest mentor, I just went up to her and hugged her and she's so solid and she's so compassionate and just an amazing player," redshirt sophomore Tori Gorrell said. "Learning from Haleigh is obviously what I need to do, she just has so many shots. Simone and Ali, those two girls, they literally do it all, I could not imagine being in their position. They're so crazy good."

Tucked in the belly of the Sprint Center, void of the usual laugher and lighthearted energy, the Penn State locker room may have been silent postmatch, but the contributions of the 2017 senior class, will proudly prevail.

NCAA Tournament Content Central: Semifinals

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - For the first time since 2014, Penn State women's volleyball is back in the NCAA national semifinals, now just a day away from moving one match closer to a potentially historic ultimate outcome.

"Whatever sport you play, this is what you should be dreaming about," Penn State head coach Russ Rose said. "This is the platform, that's why you work hard, why you do the things you do to try and get yourself in a position to compete for a national championship and to be in this case, one of four teams left."

The NCAA national semifinal field couldn't be more stacked with perennial contenders, with the top-ranked Nittany Lions among three of four teams (Nebraska and Stanford) to have won it all in the last four years. 

With individuals from nearly every team bringing NCAA championship experience at the highest level, there's no doubting both semifinal matchups have the potential to be among the most memorable. 

Penn State has familiarity among both sides of the remaining contenders on each side of the bracket. The Nittany Lions knocked off defending NCAA national champion No. 3 Stanford twice in the early part of the season. Perhaps no opponent is more familiar than fifth-ranked Nebraska, a team that handed Penn State its only loss of the season so far.

"When that happened we had a lot to learn from it," senior Heidi Thelen said. "We just had to focus on getting back in the gym the next day and knowing that we still have an entire season. Coach told us in that moment, if you win the rest of your matches you can win the Big Ten and that's what we did, and now, he said if you win six more matches you can win a national championship." 

With the Huskers owning wins in each of the last six outings, Nebraska also sent Penn State home in the NCAA regional semifinals last year, marking a second straight year the Nittany Lions departed the tournament in the round of 16.

"We know that our last two years we've gone out in the sweet 16 and it's something that we've always wanted to come back to the final four and make it to that final destination, but we're not done yet," senior first team All-American Simone Lee said. "That's always something we look to and hold in the back of our minds that even though we've reached our goal to be Big Ten champions and we've reached our goal to get to Kansas City, now let's reach our goal to win the national championship." 

For Rose, among familiarity on the big stage and in the Big Ten, while it certainly helps, he looks toward the big picture. 

"I don't look at it as anything other than an opportunity to do something hopefully that these players will remember for the rest of their lives," Rose said. 

Instead, when in the historic main gym of Rec Hall he tells the team to look up.

"I tell them to look up and see a lot of banners," Rose said. "Some banners that have six or something championships - that a lot of people have come before them and worked really hard and they're representing the University and they're representing a lot of alumni who put a lot of time in when they weren't chartering and getting all the bonuses and gifts the players get today."

Sewed on to one of those banners though is 2008, the year a then-top ranked Penn State captured its second consecutive NCAA national championship with a straight set win against No. 2 Stanford to close out a perfect 38-0 record, a feat the Nittany Lions would achieve once again the following year. 

To get to the title game though, the Nittany Lions took down a then-No. 4 Nebraska team in an epic five-set victory in front of an NCAA record crowd of more than 17,000 fans at the Quest Center in Omaha.

It was the last time the two teams have met in the NCAA national semifinals and surely one many Nittany Lion faithful won't soon forget.

That's not on the minds of this year's squad though, as the group of Nittany Lion seniors will look to punctuate their Penn State careers the same way they opened them up - with a national championship crown of course.

This year's Huskers have won each of their last 17 matches dating back to a 3-1 loss to Wisconsin in early October, earning a spot in the NCAA national semifinals with a four-set win against fourth-seeded Kentucky last weekend. 

Among the best nationally at stifling their opponents hitting percentage, Rose noted the Huskers bring strength from the service line.

"I think the impact of their serve has a lot to do with limiting other people's offensive numbers," Rose said. "I think their floor defense is really good. They don't block a lot of balls but certainly [Briana] Holman and [Lauren] Stivrins are strong blockers in the middle and I think [Mikaela] Foecke and [Annika] Albrecht block well. They're just a good team. All of the players play well together. Their libero's good. They bring a couple of defensive kids to shore them up a little bit."

Four Huskers earned All-America honors this afternoon, including Albrecht, Foecke and Holman, alongside senior setter Kelly Hunter, who earned a first team selection.

"We're playing a bunch of seniors and they've been playing the same lineup all year," Rose said. "I don't think either team is hoping to do something different, I think both teams are hoping to play well and rely on their inherent strengths." 

First serve between Penn State and Nebraska is set for 7 p.m. ET Thursday in the first of two NCAA national semifinals at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. The matchup will broadcast live on ESPN with Karch Kiraly, Paul Sunderland and Holly Rowe on the call.

Penn State Resilient in Regional Final Sweep

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By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The showering of blue and white confetti falling to the court is an image that won't soon be forgotten at Penn State. For the 13th time in program history and the first since 2014, Penn State women's volleyball is headed back to the NCAA national semifinals.

The top-ranked Nittany Lions swept Michigan State 25-23, 25-13, 28-26 in an all-Big Ten regional final affair at Rec Hall on Saturday night.

Although ending in a sweep, the Nittany Lions had to grind it out until the final point, with both the first and third sets hotly contested.

The two teams battled back-and-forth in the first set with the Spartans taking an 18-16 lead late in the frame before a critical dig from sophomore Kendall White on an Autumn Bailey attack shifted the momentum in favor of the Nittany Lions.

"That's a great attacker on the other side, she led the match in kills," head coach Russ Rose said. "It wasn't a surprise to us that she was going to get the ball and she took a great swing. Certainly trying to dig Bailey inside the block was something that we focused on."

Arriving at 2-0 after the intermission, by the time the third set arrived, 25 points weren't enough to clinch the set for either side. The Nittany Lions staved off two set points before rallying to win the set and the match.

Penn State's blocking was a huge advantage in the win as the Nittany Lions out-blocked the Spartans 14.0 to 8.0. Senior Haleigh Washington led the way with a match-high 10 blocks, including three solo stuffs, while fellow senior Heidi Thelen added four.

"We work really hard as a team and we did a great job keying in on what we were actually planning," Thelen said. "We did that and stuck to our game plan, listened to the coaches and fed the ball to Kendall."

Being in the Big Ten, both the Spartans and Nittany Lions were familiar opponents coming into this match with the Nittany Lions winning the first two regular season matches in four sets each.

"We had three great matches with them this year," Rose said "We have great respect for Michigan State and we're excited about the results of the match."

A couple of key Nittany Lions made impacts in the third set, as Penn State once again showcased its depth when called upon.

Senior Lainy Pierce had a critical service ace late in the third set, but perhaps the most notable substitution was for redshirt junior outside hitter Nia Reed.

"Lainy came in and served well," Rose said. "Nia [Reed] brings really good energy when she comes in. She's a really offensive-minded player and the energy is good. Everyone likes her because she is a good kid."

Reed had three kills on six attacks for a .500 hitting percentage, all at the very end of the third set.

"I was excited to go in and be a part of my first elite eight," Reed said. "I'm happy that my team has enough confidence in me to go out and make a play. They're not worried about setting me because of that confidence."

The win puts the Nittany Lions just two matches from a potential record-setting eighth NCAA national championship.

This year, Penn State has cleared the regional-round hurdle, one it had stumbled upon in the two previous seasons, including an especially heartbreaking loss to Nebraska in last year's regional semifinals, that brought back some all too familiar scenarios. 

"Not all experiences are good, but they're all valuable," Rose said. "When Simone got blocked at match point, I'd seen that before. The difference is we were able to rally and come back to win the match."

For this senior class, winning a national championship in their freshman year is something that has driven them to increase their work ethic.

"We went freshman year and I didn't see the court, but it was still an awesome experience," Thelen said. "Now, actually being a part of it on the court is something different and really exciting. I'm happy to spend these moments with my teammates and we want to win, so we're going to work hard."

The Nittany Lions will face none other than No. 5 Nebraska in the NCAA national semifinals, a team that not only ousted them from the tournament a season ago, but also handed Penn State its only loss of the 2017 season in the Big Ten opener.

Revenge, however, is not a word in Penn State's vocabulary. 

"We're going to play our game, do what we can do and expose our own strengths. It doesn't matter who's on the other side of the net," junior Bryanna Weiskircher said. 

The match will take place Thursday night in Kansas City, with the winner moving on to Saturday's NCAA national championship game.

Aggressive Serving Powers Penn State

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By Will Desautelle, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Top seeded Penn State continued its postseason run Friday afternoon, advancing to the NCAA regional finals with a straight set win against Missouri.

While the Nittany Lions had their moments of struggle during the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, Penn State ultimately defeated Howard and Pittsburgh in four sets each. Come regionals though, Penn State dominated in nearly every aspect of the match to complete their first sweep of the postseason against the Tigers (25-17, 25-18, 25-19).

Seniors Simone Lee and Ali Frantti led the way for the Nittany Lions with 15 kills and 11 kills, respectively. Senior Haleigh Washington also chipped in nine kills, while Tori Gorrell had five kills and three blocks. Lee, Washington, and Gorrell all hit .500 for the match, while Frantti was right behind the trio at .455.

Despite the Tigers being unseeded in the NCAA Tournament, they entered the matchup playing their best volleyball of the season defeating No. 19 Kansas and No. 16 Wichita State to advance to the NCAA regionals. Penn State head coach Russ Rose and the Nittany Lions did not take them lightly.

"To beat two ranked teams to get here is a great recognition of a strong team and program and we knew that we were going to have to play well to advance," Rose said.

One of the top storylines coming from the match was the disparity in hitting percentage, which was in heavy favor of the Nittany Lions. Penn State hit an efficient .432 for the match, while Missouri hit just .212.

A big reason for the efficiency came in Penn State's aggression from behind the service line.

"I think you always have to serve tough especially get to the tournament," Lee said. "It's just something that we have to do. We work on serving every single day, so we should be able to serve tough in big matches like we did this afternoon."

The aggressive serving put Missouri frequently out of system throughout the match, which prevented them from getting top hitters Kira Larson and Alyssa Munlyn as involved as they normally are. Larson finished with eight kills on 18 attempts, while Munlyn found the floor just once on 12 attempts. 

"If you don't serve tough you're going to be at the mercy of the other team's offense," Rose said. "Nobody gets this far in the tournament without having good offensive players. The impact of the serve was great, but the most important component was we only had one service error."

Four different Nittany Lions recorded at least one ace, including two each from setters Abby Detering and Bryanna Weiskircher. Penn State had six total aces to just one error all afternoon.

"That was really the best part of the equation from where I was sitting because when you're getting good pressure and not making mistakes it certainly enhances your chances of being in the game," Rose said.

While the sweep looks nice, the Nittany Lions still believe there is still plenty of room for improvement for tomorrow's regional final matchup. 

"Our passing should have been a lot better tonight, but we got lucky with some plays," Frantti said. "When we go to the elite eight that can't happen, so we've got to clean up some of the errors that we're making."

Regardless of result, tomorrow will be the last match at Rec Hall for the seniors on this team. The opportunity for a final outing at Rec Hall comes in a quick turnaround, as Penn State preps for Michigan State Saturday at 8 p.m. with a trip to the NCAA national semifinals on the line.

"We'll come up with a game plan against teams that we played earlier [in the season], but everybody is hot at this point in time so you're playing people when they're in the same mindset as you are," Rose said.

NCAA Tournament Content Central: Regionals

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RELATED READING: Penn State Resilient in Regional Final Sweep I Aggressive Serve Powers Penn State in Regional Semis

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.

Feature: Reed's Unconventional Journey
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."    

Third Set Surge Powers Nittany Lions to Victory

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By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - A pair of back-and-forth sets saw Penn State women's volleyball in a familiar position. For the second night and a row, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament split the first two sets of the match.

Penn State advanced to the NCAA regionals, but it wasn't easy by any means as the Nittany Lions prevailed in four tight sets, 25-20, 23-25, 25-22, 25-19.

The Nittany Lions expected nothing less from their second round opponent, as in-state rival Pittsburgh is as familiar as opponents come for Penn State, having met in both spring scrimmages and in last year's NCAA second round.

The ACC champions hung with the Big Ten winners the entire night, but especially in the first two sets. The first set saw 11 ties and three lead changes, with the Nittany Lions finally pulling away late to take a 1-0 lead.

Penn State started the second set off hot, only to fade late after a couple of service errors at critical junctures.

"I thought we made a lot of errors tonight," head coach Russ Rose said. "A lot of hitting errors, a lot of things that we need to be better at. We do this in the next round, we're in trouble."

The turning point in the match came midway through the third set. Both Penn State and Pittsburgh played evenly to an 8-8 score, but the Nittany Lions went on a 5-0 run and didn't look back for the rest of the set.

Haleigh Washington was the main catalyst of the rally, contributing a block or a kill on four of the five points during the run.

"Haleigh is an amazing player, so just giving her the ball nine times out of 10, you know she's going to score," senior Abby Detering said. "Getting that lead and having her scoring and doing so well had the team so pumped up."

Washington's presence at the net was felt all night, as her .483 hitting percentage and seven blocks helped the Nittany Lions secure victories in the third and fourth sets.

Overall, the Nittany Lions tallied 17 blocks on the match, but it was the timing of the blocks that helped Penn State pull out a victory down the stretch.

Penn State totaled 14 of its 17 blocks  in the third and fourth sets, seemingly halting the Panthers at any time Pitt picked up momentum. In addition to Washington's seven blocks, Tori Gorrell had seven, Heidi Thelen had five and Simone Lee had four. 

"We had a good game plan on what we wanted to do," Rose said in terms of the team's blocking strategy. "Early, both teams were doing a good job avoiding the block but I thought our size wore them down a little bit at the end. I thought Haleigh and Tori did a really nice job blocking overall."

Penn State clearly wore down the Panthers, as they hit only .268 and .057 in the third and fourth sets, respectively after hitting well over .300 in the first two frames.

Lee attributed the effort in the final two sets as a testament to will, understanding Penn State had been in a similar situation against Howard the night before, but was able to turn it around.

"We knew that we had to play better and it was going to be a battle," Lee said. "Pitt wasn't going to roll over. We had to pick up our passing just a little bit more and when we did that in the third and fourth sets, it really helped us be successful."

The Nittany Lions are very familiar with the word "success," in the second round, as Penn State advances to the NCAA regionals for the 15th consecutive year, hosting regionals for the first time since 2009.

The University Park regional is now set, matching Penn State against Missouri after the Tigers upset No. 16 Wichita State in the second round. Should the Nittany Lions advance, it's an all-out Big Ten party as Penn State would play the winner of Michigan State and Illinois, after the Illini upset No. 8 Washington in five sets to round out the regional field. 

Howard Tests Penn State in NCAA Opener

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By Will Desautelle, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK - Top-seeded Penn State was tested in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, defeating the Howard Bison in four sets (25-10, 22-25, 25-15, 25-16). The Bison, however, gave the Nittany Lions a scare with their second set win and kept things interesting in the final two frames.

"I would like to recognize Howard on a great season and a terrific effort tonight against us," Penn State head coach Russ Rose said. "I thought they played hard. I thought they played well and it sure looked like they were having more fun on the other side of the net."

Sometimes being the number one seed in the tournament comes with added pressure, but Rose did not feel this was a huge issue for his team.

"We had a great practice yesterday, so I thought we were ready to play, but Howard is a different team to play because they're small, athletic and quick, and they hit the ball differently than maybe some of the players we're accustomed to seeing in the conference." Rose said.

Penn State's edge in size paid off, as the Nittany Lions out-blocked the Bison 11.0 to 4.0, but Howard countered with plenty of scrappy defense and some aggressive serving to get Penn State out of system. 

"They play hard, they always play hard," Rose said. "I think [coach] Sean [Kupferberg] does a great job with his team. They play with great pride and play with a lot of enthusiasm. They earned the game and we didn't give them the game.

One of Penn State's greatest strengths this season has been the amount of experience in its veteran leadership. With so many upperclassmen to point the team in the right direction, the Nittany Lions have the ability to overcome these types of droughts.

"I think the players are aware of what they have to do. They understand the level of play that it takes to advance," Rose said. "Had we had a younger and more inexperienced team we could have lost our composure and lost the match." 

Penn State found encouragement from other Nittany Lions stepping up alongside Simone Lee, who was named the Big Ten Player of the Year earlier in the week, but tallied just five kills on 18 attempts.

Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Haleigh Washington, had another excellent performance with 13 kills and five blocks. Tori Gorrell also added 11 kills and three blocks out of the middle spot, while Ali Frantti chipped in 12 kills and six digs.

"I didn't think Simone had a great night, but that can happen," Rose said. "I thought Ali passed really well. I thought Haleigh and especially Tori hit really well. I thought Tori was really our best attacker this evening."

Gorrell was also a key piece in Penn State's Big Ten title clinching win at Minnesota last weekend, contributing nine kills on 14 attempts with no errors. Playing behind Washington has not allowed her to put up big numbers this year, but she has been a valuable second middle for the Nittany Lions.

"It's unfAortunate that we didn't set her more during the year," Rose said. "She wasn't able to get recognized with any sort of [postseason] awards because we didn't set her enough and yet she was hitting close to .500."

That certainly didn't affect the way Gorrell played Friday though.

"All year the coaches have been saying find the open space and to move around," Gorrell said. Tonight I thought the setters did a really good job of finding me in the gap."

Penn State will take on the Pittsburgh Panthers Saturday at 7 p.m. in Rec Hall in the second round.

The Nittany Lions offered some high praise for the Panthers, noting they know what they'll need to improve ahead of the matchup.

"I think we need to serve a little bit more aggressively if we're going to get Pitt into their out of system then our block has to be a lot cleaner," Washington said. "I thought our block was a little too sloppy tonight, which is something we need to work on since Pitt is going to swing away. They have a lot of good weapons and we need to make sure that we're disciplined on our block."    

2017 NCAA Tournament Content Central

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Nittany Lions Begin NCAA Championship
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.

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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.

Penn State Focused Ahead of Regular Season Finale

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Top-ranked Penn State women's volleyball closes out its regular season campaign on the road this weekend, headed to No. 11 Wisconsin and No. 8 Minnesota.

On a 17-match winning streak with a share of the Big Ten title on the line, the Nittany Lions aren't focusing on any added circumstances this week, instead relying on preparation ahead of the final two matches before Sunday's NCAA Tournament selection show.

"I think we really do a good job preparing for every game like it's a big match," Lee said. "There's not really a time when we're saying this one match has precedent over the other. It's always, we need to focus on what we need to do on this side of the net, on our side of the net and we need to focus on how we can defend against the opposition. I don't think there has been a time when we're putting more pressure on ourselves because we've got to play so and so, versus a different team."

Penn State has plenty of power on its side of the net, having utilized the one match at a time mentality to not only scale the polls, but also the NCAA national standings, stifling opponents along the way.

On the year, Penn State's limiting its opponents to .165 hitting, which ranks second in the Big Ten. Penn State has also held its last five consecutive opponents to less than .100 hitting on the year, keeping Rutgers at a Big Ten season-low -.082 clip in the most recent road win last Saturday. Blocking-wise, Penn State's averaging 2.96 blocker per set, which ranks 12th nationally and leads the conference.

Offensively, the Nittany Lions are hitting at a national-best .355 clip, helped out by senior Haleigh Washington, who leads the nation with a .517 hitting percentage on the year. Although Penn State has utilized a fairly balanced attack in the final stretch of the conference slate, both Lee and Washington have record at least 10 kills in 14 of 18 Big Ten matches.

Always humble and hungry for more though, Penn State isn't letting its winning streak or even its 10-0 mark in road matches this year set the tone for the weekend, instead opting to focus on constant improvement. 

"Especially going into Wisconsin and Minnesota, they're very good blocking and defending teams and I think that's something we work on a lot in practice, playing a lot of 6-on-6 and making sure we are grinding it out, making sure we're tenacious in our efforts and trying to get the job done," Lee said.

Both the Badgers and the Gophers are just behind the Nittany Lions in the statistical standings. Wisconsin is outhitting its opponents .300 to .170, with a hitting percentage that's ranked third in the conference and ninth nationally. The Badgers are also averaging 2.67 blocks per set, led by 6-foot-8-inch freshman middle Dana Rettke, who's averaging 1.43 blocks per frame on the year, also hitting .445, which is slotted second in the conference to Washington and fourth nationally.

Penn State won its earlier meeting against Wisconsin this year, taking down the Badgers in four sets at home in late-October - which also happened to mark the 39th consecutive season Penn State head coach Russ Rose has led the Nittany Lions to a 20-win season.   

The Gophers are hitting .286 in 2017, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten, paced by first team AVCA All-American setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson, who's averaging 12.16 assists per set, good for first in the league and second nationally.

Much like Penn State, both teams are also among the national leaders in average match attendance, mean the Nittany Lions will have to contend with some hostile road environments, especially meeting Minnesota on senior night.

Penn State hasn't defeated either team on the road since 2014, the same year the Nittany Lions captured their seventh NCAA Tournament title in program history. With several members on the roster for both wins in 2014, including Lee, her message to the younger members of the team this year, is just to breath.

"Just know that your teammates have your back no matter what, there's not a time where we won't look you dead in the eye and say, hey, we got you or hey, you got this and I think that's something really special about this team, that we all trust each other so much. We really do take to heart the fact that we have each other's back and if someone's killing it, we're going to keep pushing them, keep giving them the ball and then if someone's not, we're going to say, we got you, what do you need from us."

With packed crowds hardly surprising across many Big Ten road venues, the Nittany Lions will only utilize the experience headed into the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

"It's a big crowd in either arena and I think that it's a really good challenge for us because going into the tournament, there's going to be a lot of people cheering us on or cheering against us and I think that's something we have to look forward to," Lee said.

Giving Thanks
The Thanksgiving break doesn't impact the Nittany Lion practice schedule too much, but per tradition, practice is still on schedule with a team meal to follow. 

"This Thanksgiving, we'll go to the Nittany Lion Inn, we actually do it every year and it's really fun," Lee said. "We have practice beforehand and then we all get really cute and dressed up in the locker room and then we get to go have really good food at the Nittany Lion Inn and just kind of spend time with each other and kind of really realize how grateful we are and thankful we are to be here and be with our teammates on Thanksgiving."

Selection Sunday
Penn State will await its seeding in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, which is unveiled Sunday, Nov. 26. The show will air live on ESPNU at 9 p.m. ET.

Net Presence Carries Nittany Lions in Sweep

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By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer 

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It was a perfect letdown situation for the top-ranked team in the country. A weeknight home game against a team with only one conference win would have been easy to overlook, especially with a three-game road trip looming.

Instead, Penn State women's volleyball swept Indiana, 25-21, 25-16, 25-16 to push their winning streak to 16 consecutive matches. A large part of the victory came by way of the blocking success, as the Nittany Lions could rely on a timely block anytime Indiana showed signs of momentum.

Anywhere the Hoosiers tried to attack at the net, it was met with a wall of Penn State defenders. The Nittany Lions denied the overmatched Indiana hitters all night, racking up 13 blocks for the match. The Hoosiers hit at a .083 clip, in large part because of the Penn State pressure.

Tori Gorrell and Heidi Thelen were the biggest road blocks for the Hoosiers, combining for 13 blocks. Gorrell credited most of her success tonight to Thelen being a reliable teammate and putting her into positions to succeed. 

"With Heidi being a middle in the pass, it's easier to know what she's doing because we have different arm swings," Gorrell said. "Some outsides do short arm swings, some do long arm swings, but Heidi is very consistent with that on her blocking. I know where she's going and she'll talk to me and push me." 

Gorrell's play didn't go unnoticed by head coach Russ Rose, who commended her as well as Haleigh Washington for their complete efforts on the night.

"I thought Tori played a great match, she hit and blocked really well. Haleigh, as is the norm, hit better and got some blocks," Rose said.

Washington added four blocks and 10 kills, hitting at a .667 clip, leading both teams in kills and percentage.

While the Nittany Lions may have cruised to a win on the surface, nine service errors caught Rose's attention as he stressed the errors as a point to work on for the future. 

"It's a learning experience for the players. I thought we blocked well and served poorly," Rose said.

The Nittany Lions started out slow in the first two sets, trailing 10-7 in the first and 7-5 in the second before turning those frames around.

Penn State played its best volleyball in terms of hitting in the third set, registering a scorching .632 hitting percentage in the final frame, siding out at 87 percent.

Washington's four kills on four attacks set the tone for the Nittany Lions in that third set, and her leadership showed all night even as Penn State was struggling to distance itself from Indiana early in sets.

It's a quality that she has had all year and something critical to this team's success in both the immediate future and the postseason as well.

"As a leader, it's about instilling that sense of urgency, that focus and that drive that everything matters," Washington said. "It's not just when we play, it's when we practice too. We're going to have teams we play in the first round of the tournament that will be serving us tough and hitting really hard. Everybody competes and everybody goes hard." 

Rose also highlighted the importance of putting a quality effort together, as errors and mental mistakes cannot be absorbed if this team wants to make a run at a championship, a very realistic goal as things currently stand.

"Everybody cares in the NCAA Tournament, it's just how much you care," Rose said. "A 'C' effort won't get us very far in the NCAA Tournament. It certainly wasn't a great performance by everybody today but if you're trying to get some momentum going down the stretch, you'd like to think that you'd be able to start your own engines and get out there and do it."

The Nittany Lions travel to Rutgers this weekend before a trip to Minnesota and Wisconsin after Thanksgiving to close out the regular season.

@GOPSUSPORTS

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