By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.-- Thanks to a career-high tying performance on Sunday at Northwestern, junior middle hitter Nia Grant played an instrumental role in helping the Nittany Lion women's volleyball team tally its seventh-straight victory in conference play.
Grant registered 11 kills on .769 hitting and helped the Lions sweep Northwestern. Heading into Wednesday's home match against Ohio State, Penn State is looking for more of the same out of the Ohio native.
"Nia had a great weekend offensively," head coach Russ Rose said. "She came in against Illinois and really gave us a needed spark and continued it the next day and played terrific offensively against Northwestern."
One of Grant's best assets is her attitude on the court.
"She's really fun to play with when she's excited, she's all smiles and it's hard not to smile when you see her getting so enthusiastic. It's awesome to play with her," sophomore outside hitter Megan Courtney said.
An aspect of Grant's game that has improved is her serving. She has had 15 aces this season, the second highest on the team.
"She's surprisingly been really good at the service line. She's surprising a lot of the teams with her dropper serve that gets aces, so that a really good thing for our team," junior setter Micha Hancock said.
Grant said she'd like to work on her blocking. She has had a total of 34 blocks this season, but showed improvement by tallying seven blocks this weekend. She said the team still has "kinks" that it needs to work out. These kinks entail working on being consistent and staying high energy. Hancock added that the team needs to improve its serving before the matches this week.
"The team can't play at its highest level without Nia and [Ariel] Scott playing at a high level," Rose said.
On Wednesday, the Nittany Lions will take on the Ohio State Buckeyes (14-6). Penn State has won the last 12 consecutive matches against Ohio State. On Saturday, Penn State will match up against Iowa (10-10).
Blocking will be crucial for Penn State in this week's Big Ten matches, especially Ohio State. Ohio State's outside hitter Kaitlyn Leary, the leading scorer in the conference, tallied her 1,000th career kill last weekend. She averages 4.96 kills per set, while Penn State's biggest hitter, Ariel Scott, only averages 3.19 kills per set. Grant, Katie Slay and the right side blockers will need a strong block on the senior Buckeye.
"[Leary] is very good. Without a block, it's doubtful we'll dig the ball. She's got a really fast arm and she's a great player," Hancock said. "We're going to just focus on getting in front of her and making her try to compete with a block in front of her."
In addition to blocking, defense will be very important for the Nittany Lions. Because of the speed of Ohio State's offense, the Nittany Lion defense will need to get the balls up if the block cannot get there in time.
"Like all the Big Ten teams, [Ohio State] is really good," Courtney said. "We just have to focus on controlling what we can control because Ohio State is a great team and they have some great hitters. Stopping [the hitters] is going to be a key factor for us."
No. 24 Ohio State is 2-6 in the Big Ten and is currently on a four-game losing streak, but the Buckeyes will enter Wednesday's match ready to challenge for every point.
"If [Ohio State] controls the ball, they have some terrific attackers," Rose said. "[Taylor] Sandbothe is arguably the quickest middle in the conference as a freshman and has really made a great impact on their team. We need to control the ball. If we control the ball, we have the ability to attack from a variety of areas along the net."
Catch the Nittany Lions take on the Buckeyes on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Rec Hall. The match will be streamed on ESPN3.
On Saturday, the Nittany Lions will meet Iowa at 7 p.m. in Rec Hall. This match will be streamed as a Big Ten Network- Student U. The Hawkeyes beat Indiana in five sets last weekend, earning their first Big Ten win this season. They are 1-7 in the conference.
Iowa junior outside hitter Alex Lovell had 20 kills against Indiana and has been averaging 3.73 kills per set, so a tough block on her will be vital for the Nittany Lions.
"When we control the ball, we're scary. It's just about us coming in and being consistent everyday. That's where it lies. It's in our hands and we know that. It's how hard we're going to compete with other teams," Hancock said.
Wednesday's game against Ohio State is the Dig Pink game, benefitting the Side-Out Foundation, an organization that raises money for breast cancer through volleyball teams across the nations. Fans are encouraged to wear pink to the match and donate.
"We have a long way to go, but we've come far and we can still progress in the upward direction. We've had a lot of rollercoaster rides so far this season," Courtney said. "Hopefully we can keep it consistent and steady in the upward direction. All we can do is improve, so that's what our goal is."
Recently in Women's Volleyball Category
By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
By Chelsea Howard, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Following the lead of her two older sisters and using the guidance from her parents, who are both volleyball coaches, Dominique Gonzalez knew at only four years old that she would carry on the tradition within in her family of playing volleyball on a competitive level.
"I was kind of born into it," Gonzalez said. "I was always in the gym and I became almost like a gym rat. My mom and my dad had a really big impact on me - my mom especially since she coached me a lot when I was young. She started the foundation of the athlete I've become today of working hard and training me from the basics."
Originally from San Antonio, Texas, the junior has always been around some of the best competition in the country and wanted that feeling to continue after graduating high school. Setting her goals high and working until she reached them, Gonzalez found herself in the position to capitalize on a dream.
"Volleyball is so huge in Texas with a lot of competition, but my dream was to come up and play here at Penn State," Gonzalez said. "That's what I really wanted to do so I worked hard for that. It's a great atmosphere here with the fans and everything. I just love everything about it."
After meeting the coaching staff and the team, seeing Penn State's campus, and looking at how balanced the athletics and academics are, Gonzalez knew she wanted to do whatever it would take to be a part of a volleyball program with a rich history under head coach Russ Rose.
"Playing for a coach that's legendary and having coaches that want to draw everything out of you and make you be the best player you can be has been the most rewarding part of playing here," Gonzalez said. "You have teammates that are there to support you and you're part of a university that's really supportive of the volleyball program as well."
Gonzalez knew that during her freshman year she would have to fight for any time to play on the court and fight even harder to find her way into the starting lineup. Gaining experience as a freshman, she played in 29 matches and started in six as a serving and defensive specialist. Her sophomore year, Gonzalez started in all 36 matches as the libero and led the team with 457 digs for the whole season.
With 16 matches behind
the Nittany Lions, Gonzalez leads the team with 189 digs so far this season.
Since she is in the libero position, her communication plays a huge role in the success of the team.
"Being libero, you have to man the back row and run things making sure that everyone knows what's going on," Gonzalez said. "You have to be the stable player when it comes to the back row because you have people that play all around so their main focus isn't the back row like it is mine. I have to make sure I know what's going on and set up the offense for Micha [Hancock] giving her a dig so she can do what she needs to do with the ball."
Playing in this position means the libero is usually on the court for five out of the six rotations and has to use strong leadership to make sure everyone is on the same page. Along with being the libero comes pressure of guiding the team. Gonzalez has learned to focus on what she can control rather than worry about the uncontrollable factors.
"I've tried to learn a lot from the people that were here in the past playing in the same position," Gonzalez said. "I try to focus more on what's going on around me and zone out the pressure. I just focus on winning the point and what the team needs. When you focus on things that are external rather than internal, that helps relieves some of the pressure."
Having the ability to control pressures of competing on a team that has won national championships has proven to be a huge skill for Gonzalez. After playing the same sport for about 16 years, the junior uses her competitive edge to stay motivated and to push the team to reach their end of the season goals.
"I really like to win and I like to be successful," Gonzalez said. "I think the team is working to be on same page. I think the want to win and the want to win a national championship with this team is what keeps us motivated because the season can be long and taxing. The focus on wanting to win the Big Ten and national championships is what keeps us going."
In long matches that go to five sets, Gonzalez finds herself using the crowd as motivation and takes advantage of their support and energy during home matches to stay focused on what the Nittany Lions have set out to accomplish.
"It's great when there's a long rally and you win the point and the fans are behind you cheering you on," Gonzalez said. "It gives you the energy and takes away the energy from the other team which helps us out a lot. When they are cheering you on, you know you can accomplish almost anything."
While there is a lot of conference play still to come before the postseason matches begin, Gonzalez is looking forward to seeing the team come together even more and continue to work better as a whole unit to prepare for the championship matches.
"I'm looking forward to us getting better and showing what we've accomplished over the past couple of weeks and showing what we're going to change as a team to hold each other accountable," Gonzalez said. "I'm excited to go out there and prove to ourselves that we can be a better team."
By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Riding a five-match winning streak, the No. 4-ranked Penn State women's volleyball team heads on the road this weekend with a pair of Big Ten matches at Illinois and Northwestern.
Penn State's execution on both sides of the ball has been a key to the Lions' success during the last two weeks. Junior outside hitter Nia Grant said the defense, specifically the back row, has improved tremendously throughout the season.
"[Our back row] covers a lot of people in the front row. If our block isn't good, you can always count on the defense to be there and back us up," Grant said.
The offense has also been very successful, with consistent production from what head coach Russ Rose calls the "big three"; senior middle hitter Katie Slay, senior right side hitter Ariel Scott, and senior outside hitter Deja McClendon. This season, Slay has had 129 kills, Scott has had 153, and McClendon has had 139.
"[Katie] Slay has been very consistent. Obviously Arielle [Scott] has been very consistent. And I think those two together offensively are fantastic," Grant said.
When the team talks off the court, they set goals and make sure that each player has the same goals in mind. Slay said talking with teammates about goal setting and wanting to work to be their best has resulted in the team's success. She said it is all about getting your mentality focused on the right things so that when they step on the court, they are ready to play.
The team recognizes that despite the current success, there are still many matches ahead and that there are always aspects of the game that need improvement.
"We're definitely excited about [the wins], but we still have a lot of good teams to play and we're not going to get complacent," Scott said.
A part of the game that Coach Rose noted the Lions need to improve on is ball-managing skills and cutting down on errors. The team has a total of 403 errors this season, but has fewer errors than their opponents in every aspect of the game except for serving.
"What we haven't been doing well is managing the ball in some situations. It just seems that everybody thinks that it's okay to make two or three errors in a game," Rose said. "When you add up four or five people making two or three errors, you're giving away an awful lot of points."
Having good chemistry between the players in the lineup is imperative for the Nittany Lions. Rose has been changing around the lineup each match, in hopes of finding a group that clicks and wants to play.
"I am going to keep changing around the lineup until I think something clicks a little better. If you practice four days a week and you play twice a week, you have twice as many opportunities to demonstrate that you should be playing [on the court]," said Rose.
This weekend, the Nittany Lions will head to Illinois to face the Fighting Illini on their home court on Friday. After that, the team will head to Chicago for a match against Northwestern on Sunday afternoon. Having a Sunday match is unusual for Penn State because Rose likes to give the players off on Sundays.
"We had off on Sunday and Monday of this week because this week is a tough week. We have a TV game, so we play Friday and Sunday," said Rose. "Sunday is traditionally our day off, so we needed to have to a day so we had back-to-back days off. Hopefully the players will have a little more energy and their bodies will be a little more rested."
Before the matches this weekend, Scott wants to continue to work on her blocking. Grant said as a team, blocking would be crucial because both teams are very talented at the net.
Illinois redshirt sophomore outside hitter Jocelynn Birks has tallied 241 kills this season. Northwestern senior outside hitter Stephanie Holthus has had 279 kills this season. Blocking these two players will be very important.
Slay said both Illinois (7-9) and Northwestern (11-7) are good teams that do a lot of things well. She said it's important to make sure that the Nittany Lions take care of their side of the court.
Rose also noted that both teams are talented. Illinois split last weekend on the road, beating Indiana and falling to Purdue. They are 3-3 in the Big Ten.
The atmosphere at Illinois may be one of the toughest challenges that the Nittany Lions will face this weekend. Scott said the Illini student section is great and their gym is smaller, so the fans will be on top of them and very loud.
The Nittany Lions will kick the weekend off in Illinois on Friday at 7:30 p.m. Catch the game on Big Ten Network.
"It's hard to play, but it's also really fun, too," Scott said.
Northwestern won both of their matches against Indiana and Purdue on the road last weekend and are also 3-3 in the Big Ten. Penn State will face the Wildcats on Sunday at 1 p.m.
By Chelsea Howard, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - When Katie Slays' father put up a volleyball net in their backyard and she started playing for fun with her neighbors, the North Carolina native didn't know that the recreational sport would turn into a competitive career where she has proven to be a key contributor for the Nittany Lions.
Slay joined her first team in seventh grade, but really started playing volleyball in fifth grade. Continuing to grow as a player and graduating high school as a member of the 2009 U.S. Junior National team, Slay's passion for the sport after years of dedication never faded. Knowing there's still room for improvement is how the senior stays motivated to close out four years at Penn State.
"I don't feel like I've reached my full potential yet so I want to strive to be the best for my team just so I can help on the court as much as I can," Slay said. "Each day at practice I'm striving to get better still. I really want to take it all in and soak it in as much as I can and be together with my teammates."
One teammate that has been there to share the experience of playing on one of the top teams in the country is Deja McClendon. The two seniors have been in the starting lineup together and have worked to build strong court dynamics. McClendon has noticed the type of leader Slay has developed into and the affect that has made on the team.
"She's been a lot more vocal as a leader and I look up to her in that aspect because she has a lot of experience that I don't have as a middle and as a blocker," McClendon said. "She's a huge blocker and great defensive player. I know that if I can do my job as a passer, she's going to get the job done as a hitter. We mesh together because we're both good listeners and you have to have that on a team."
In addition to leading vocally, she's also been one to lead by example. The middle hitter has proven to be one of the most consistent players for the Nittany Lions this season compiling 123 kills and 502 total blocks after 15 matches. In a sport where consistency is crucial to their success, Slay has learned that she can't be consistent without being a true team player.
"Each game I just go out there and don't do more than I know that I can do," Slay said. "I do what I'm good at and I know what to work on and try to be consistent at those things. I just do what my teammates need me to do."
After coaching Slay for just over three years and watching her develop into a player that is currently ranked seventh nationally and second in the Big Ten conference, head coach Russ Rose knows first hand the type of character Slay brings to the court each and every day. The attitude she shows when she enters Rec Hall is one focused on the outcome of the team and not making all of the big plays on her own.
"If I had to pick one player that's been the most consistent and made the greatest impact, it would be Katie," Rose said. "I think she's had a great career as well. I think she's really good at doing what she's capable of doing and I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned in life and sports from that."
In Penn State's most recent match-up against Minnesota, Slay contributed to building momentum for the Nittany Lions. In the fifth set of the match, the difference between walking away with a win or a loss was on the line. However, the senior wasn't going to take a loss in front of the home crowd.
She closed out the match matching a career-high of 16 kills and registering 10 blocks. In the final set of the night Slay helped the Nittany Lions to a 6-1 lead by making three huge kills in addition to assisting two blocks, ultimately changing the atmosphere of Rec Hall and getting the whole crowd on their feet.
As Minnesota brought the set back to within one with the score 11-10, Slay knew this was her chance to put the match away. She made two more kills and then teamed up with Ariel Scott for a block making it match point at 14-11. After an error from Minnesota, the senior could feel the emotion from the fans as they erupted reminding her of the name they were playing for and what the whole team had to defend.
"We're playing at a program with a really rich history when we step out on the court, we want to defend our name and do our best," Slay said. "It's not so much how the team does it's how we control our side and play together as a team. We know that everyone's good. Going into five sets at home - they pushed us, but we have to rely on each other."
By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUsports.com
Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.- Ariel Scott led the Nittany Lions to victory in five sets on Wednesday night against No. 11 Minnesota. Scott tallied a season-high 25 kills, only three short of her career-high of 28 kills.
Penn State started off strong in the first set, with a 8-2 lead, with three kills from Scott and one kill from sophomore outside hitter Megan Courtney, consecutively. The Golden Gophers fought back, making the score 12-10, but Penn State rallied and scored seven points. Toward the end of the first set, Penn State led 21-18 and closed out the game with three kills from Scott and one from senior middle hitter Katie Slay. The Nittany Lions took the first set, 25-19.
Scott set the tone in the first game with 10 kills. She said starting out strong in Big Ten matches is important.
"Every team is good. Getting that momentum is a big part of the game," Scott said.
Minnesota had an early lead in the second set, up 6-3, but with help from Scott and a block from Courtney and Nia Grant, the Nittany Lions were able to tie it up at 7-7. Through the rest of the set, the Nittany Lions were neck and neck with Minnesota. The Gophers had four consecutive kills to gain a 21-16 lead, but the Nittany Lions fought back to make the score 22-20. Minnesota won the second set after a Penn State attacking error.
"Minnesota keeps the ball in play and they are a very disciplined team with two or three really good arms," head coach Russ Rose said. "After two games, they had six errors. We were having five or fix errors a game."
Penn State was down early in the third set, but with kills from Slay and Scott and a Courtney-Slay block, the Nittany Lions were able to gain the lead at 20-18. Minnesota came back from behind to tie the set at 21-21, but the Nittany Lions sealed the deal with a four-point rally. The Nittany Lions were ahead in the match two games to one.
In the fourth set, the Nittany Lions trailed 13-5, but a kill from Nia Grant fired the team up and gave them the momentum to score more points. Penn State had a few three-point runs, but ultimately fell to the Golden Gophers, 25-22.
In the deciding set, the Nittany Lions came out strong with a 6-1 lead, with three kills and a block from Slay and a Slay-Scott block. Minnesota came back from a six point deficit to make the score 12-10 at the end of the fifth set. The Golden Gophers only scored one more point before Penn State closed out the game. A block from Slay and Scott made the score 14-11 and a Minnesota error ended the match, giving Penn State its fourth Big Ten Conference win.
When the players step out on the court, they play to defend the Penn State name and want do their best. It's important to do so at a program with such a rich history. The team knows that it is not about what the other team does, but how they control their own side and play together as a team.
"We know that everyone's good. Going to five sets at home, [Minnesota] pushed us, but we have to rely on each other," Slay said.
The team was trailing early in the second and fourth games, which caught Rose's attention. In order to be successful, the Nittany Lions need to perform at the level that they did in the first set throughout the entire match.
"Players have to come out ready to play. You can't be down 8-2 and nonchalantly think that you can turn it around and get it back because that doesn't make any sense," Rose said.
Minnesota middle Tori Dixon had 17 kills, making up 28 percent of the team's total kills. Coach Rose said she is a player that no one can stop. The team had a few blocks on her, which McClendon said really fired the team up.
It was a great night for the seniors, with Ariel Scott, Katie Slay, and Deja McClendon all having big plays throughout the match.
"I thought the seniors played really hard. We had more kills than their big three [players] with our big three (Scott, Slay, McClendon)," Rose said.
Slay matched her career-high with 16 kills and set her season-high record in blocks, totaling 10 blocks against Minnesota. McClendon had her fourth double-double of the season with 14 kills and 16 digs. McClendon also tallied four blocks, two of which were solo blocks.
"They served Deja 90 percent of the balls tonight and she did a great job passing. That's two matches in a row where Deja had to carry the load," Rose said.
The Nittany Lions will take on No. 19 Wisconsin on Saturday night. The Badgers (14-2) fell to Nebraska last weekend to break the team's eight match winning streak. In their past five matchups, the Nittany Lions are 4-1 against the Badgers.
In practice for the remainder of the week, the team is going to work on carrying their momentum through the entire game.
"We need to work hard not only winning first games, but second games," McClendon said. "That's where we always start slumping and if we slump in practice all during the week, we'll slump in the game. If we can set that up, I think well be better."
Catch the match at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday in Rec Hall, following the Homecoming football game.
By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUsports.com Student
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.- The Penn State women's volleyball team is preparing for another challenging week with more Big Ten play after a weekend sweep in the state of Indiana.
The fourth-ranked team knows before going into each Big Ten match that it will be a battle. Last Saturday night, all of the Big Ten matches went into five sets except one, reinforcing how talented each team in the conference is.
"It makes you appreciate a victory when you get one because they are not as easy to come by as outsiders may assume," head coach Russ Rose said.
Rose said preparing for a Big Ten match is tough because every team is challenging. There are players on every roster he has recruited and every university is committed to being the best that they can be.
"Every time you go out and play, you have to defend your right to be out there," Rose said.
The Nittany Lions are 3-1 in the Big Ten and are looking for a fourth victory on Wednesday night when they take on No. 11 Minnesota.
Senior outsider hitter Deja McClendon said that the team has a sense of what kind of team Minnesota is because they have watched them play this season. She said the team knows that Minnesota is a big team and mentally, the Nittany Lions have to be ready.
"They're going to bounce balls. We know that. So we have to tell ourselves 'okay, we may not get that ball, but we will get this'," McClendon said.
Minnesota, who is also 3-1 in the Big Ten, beat Iowa last weekend in five sets. The Golden Gophers senior middle hitter Tori Dixon had 23 kills against Iowa and her hitting could pose a threat to the Nittany Lions.
"It would be easy to just take out a piece of paper and say, 'Stop Dixon', but you just can't stop Dixon," Rose said. "She is hitting close to .500 for the year and that is against the top teams. She's a strong, talented, and passionate player," Rose said.
Trying to stop Dixon will be vital for Penn State, and it starts with serving. Serving well can impact a middle hitters performance.
"[Dixon] is a great player, so we just have to try to serve well so we can control her since she is in the middle. If we serve well, I think we can do a pretty good job on her," senior middle hitter Ariel Scott said.
McClendon said a lot of the things the Nittany Lions are working on in practice this week pertain to blocking, specifically blocking Dixon and Minnesota's other middle hitters. The Nittany Lions had a total of 12 blocks against Purdue, but the team has collectively blocked 133 balls this season, while opponents have only had a total 69 blocks.
Scott said the team has done a lot of scouting on Minnesota and knows a lot of the Minnesota players because the teams have played against each other on multiple occasions. In its last match up, Penn State defeated the Golden Gophers in the quarterfinals of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. The Nittany Lions have not fallen to Minnesota in their past five matches.
"They are a really strong team. We just have to play our best, especially since we are at home," Scott said.
Arguably the two best servers in Big Ten Conference will be playing in this match; Micha Hancock and Daly Santana. The two teams also have middle hitters that are hitting for a high percentage.
"Minnesota is having a great year, and they are going to be really good. We are going to have to play really well to have success with them," Rose said.
With the great depth in the Big Ten, Scott said the team gives it their all in every practice every single time they step on the floor. The Nittany Lions know they have to come with their "A-game" because every team in the Big Ten is a challenging opponent this year.
"The Big Ten is serious. That's the bottom line," Rose said.
Playing at home in a Big Ten match gives the team more confidence. McClendon noted that it's much more exciting to play at home because of the big, excited crowd.
"It's my last year playing at home, so every game has that much more meaning to me," McClendon said.
The Nittany Lions will take on the Golden Gophers (15-2) on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in Rec Hall (BTN).
By Chelsea Howard, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Anytime sophomore Megan Courtney takes the court in Rec Hall, fans notice her dominate play of blocks and kills, they can see the emotion in her face after a good play, and they notice a pink ribbon that the she wears in her hair for every single game.
For the past four years, Courtney has worn the ribbon each time she competes. However, it has a much deeper meaning than being just another ordinary pink ribbon. It has the words "Casey 14" written on it.
"Casey was a girl that I grew up admiring her and her sister," Courtney said. "Casey and her dad were in a plane to pick up her sister for spring break and when they took off one of the technicians told them that the plane isn't okay and to come back down. The plane exploded on impact and both Casey and her dad died."
To honor Casey and her family, Courtney wears the ribbon as a constant reminder of the influence that their family has had on her career and to keep in mind where she came from.
"I just wear the ribbon to symbolize what her and her family had done for me in terms of volleyball and knowing that where I came from is also a part of who I am. It helps me remember Casey and her family," Courtney said. "It just humbles me to say I didn't get to where I am without them."
Graduating high school, Courtney was ranked as the No. 4 high school player in the country and had to make a choice of where she wanted to make her college debut. Her decision to come to Penn State was a simple one when she saw the atmosphere and what it would be like to play as a Nittany Lion.
"The whole college process when you walk onto a campus is just supposed to click," Courtney said. "I thought to myself can you see yourself being at this school if volleyball isn't in the picture. That's what I based my decision off of because what if I got hurt. I weighed all my options and Penn State was just the perfect spot with volleyball and without volleyball. It was the absolute best school for me."
One component that made the decision easy for Courtney was the atmosphere in Rec Hall. This season the sophomore has stepped up in a big way against some of the top teams in the country, experiencing the Rec Hall emotion in response to her plays. She registered 11 kills against Michigan and each time the emotion in her face matched the intensity of the cheers from the fans.
"It's an incredible feeling knowing that everyone in here is cheering for you and for your team to succeed," Courtney said. "It's just something that we shouldn't take for granted and something that we should strive for every point, every game that we play. The crowd helps in so many ways because if we get a good point or we're not playing well they know how to cheer and how to get us going. Being able to hear that crowd and hear them roar as they do is absolutely phenomenal."
Building off the emotion of the crowd, Courtney has made a huge impact for the team throughout her career - especially as they began their Big Ten schedule. She finished the Michigan State match with 15 kills and 14 digs and came out the next night and played with even more intensity against Michigan making four blocks and a service ace.
As one of the youngest starters on the court for Penn State, Courtney handles the pressure of starting like some of the veterans on the team. She knows what head coach Russ Rose looks for when he picks the lineup and strives to be one of the hardest workers.
"It's always been who works the hardest, who gives a 110 percent effort, who's been the best teammate," Courtney said. "It can vary from week to week - it doesn't really matter who we're playing. It doesn't matter if it's home or away. It matters how much work you put in and if you're providing energy. If you're doing more positive than negative you're most likely going to get on the court."
With her freshman year behind her already, Courtney has proven to be a leader in all aspects of the sport. In addition to her physical talent of being a versatile player, the sophomore's knowledge of volleyball set her apart from other players immediately when she entered collegiate volleyball.
"I think Megan had a great impact even as a freshman," Rose said. "Her strengths are her volleyball IQ and the fact that she's capable of performing all of the skills. She's a good passer, defensive player, and our best blocker. There's times when she gets everything lined up well and she takes a good swing as an outside attacker."
Working her way into the starting lineup and wearing the pink ribbon as a symbol of where she came from, Courtney's hard work and determination has set her up for another successful year with the Nittany Lions.
By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - For senior outside hitter Deja McClendon, the team and crowd's energy has a huge impact on the outcome of the match. After the fifth-ranked Nittany Lion women's volleyball team fell to then-No. 15 Michigan State last Friday, energy was vital for the match against then-10th-ranked Michigan.
McClendon hit over .400 against the Wolverines and passed 80 percent of all the serves received from Michigan this past Saturday.
"Our crowd brings a ton of energy and we're lucky to have that, but the team needs to show more [energy]. I think we accomplished that against Michigan," McClendon said.
Sophomore outside hitter Megan Courtney added that having the crowd cheer for them during the match against Michigan and in other home matches is something that the No. 5-ranked team should not take for granted. And it's something that the team should strive for during every point in a match.
"The crowd helps us in so many ways because they know how to cheer and they know how to get us going. Just being able to use that crowd and hear them roar like they do is absolutely phenomenal," Courtney said.
McClendon said she and the team tried to make it a mental note to stay focused and fight against Michigan. This meant having more of a "go-getter" attitude, shaking off nerves, and forgetting about all of the other things going on. McClendon said the team lacked this when playing Michigan State.
"We were ahead many, many times against Michigan State and we let it slip away," McClendon said. "People are always going to want to go out there and kick your butt and hold nothing back. Especially in the Big Ten, when you're playing tough teams, and they're all amazing, there is a chance you can lose and if you leave the door open, they can get you. I learned [this weekend] that we need to close the door and go out there just as mean as the other team is going to come out as."
Big Ten match weeks can be broken into two parts for Nittany Lion student-athletes. Off the court, McClendon focused on her schoolwork before beginning preparation for this week's matches against Indiana and Purdue.
"We are student athletes. I had to get all of my homework and projects done right away so I could focus on what I need to do to play this weekend," McClendon said.
On the floor, the senior is no stranger to the talent across the Big Ten Conference because she has played every team in the league multiple times during her career. She said the seniors are relaying the information about the players to their teammates, as well as watching film and talking about what the other team does.
The Nittany Lions (10-2) will face Indiana (8-5) on Thursday at 7 p.m. on the Hoosiers' home court.
In their last matchup, Penn State defeated Indiana in three sets. Indiana redshirt senior Jordan Haverly had 14 kills in that match against the Lions in 2012. Haverly had her 1,500th career kill last week against Wisconsin last weekend. The team is currently on a four-match losing streak.
Penn State will play No. 24 Purdue (9-4) on Saturday in West Lafayette, Ind., home of the Boilermakers, at 7 p.m. Last season, the Nittany Lions defeated Purdue in four sets on Purdue's home court.
Head coach Russ Rose and the Lion coaching staff have prepared a scouting report, like they do prior to every match, for this weekend's opponents, but Rose said that the matches come down to how the athletes perform on the floor.
"It's how the players play more than me knowing what's going on," Rose said. "It's them competing hard and playing well as a team on the road. Being on the road is tough. All of the teams are good. We're playing Indiana and they are undefeated at home. We were undefeated at home until Friday night, so we know how that goes."
Rose is hopeful that the setback to Michigan State, the Penn State's first loss at home since 2011, will help motivate the team this weekend and throughout the rest of the season.
"Nothing gets your attention [more] than losing, so I would think the players understand that if they have an opportunity to close out a game or a match, they'll have little better focus because they'll have the memory of not being able to do that," Rose said. "The conference is always very strong, I think playing on the road is always a challenge, and it tests the maturity of the players and how they handle stress."
Watch the Nittany Lions take on Indiana on Thursday at 7 p.m. on ESPN2.
By Chelsea Howard, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Nittany Lions opened their first weekend of Big Ten play falling short to No. 15 Michigan State on Friday night, but bounced back Saturday night with enough fight and emotion to defeat No. 10 Michigan in front of a packed Rec Hall.
On opening night of Big Ten play, the Nittany Lions played in front of 3,625 fans, but could not pull off the match against Michigan State as the Spartans won 3-2. Michigan State got off to an early lead winning the first two sets (25-23 and 26-24).
Although Penn State got off to a slow start, they weren't going to let Michigan State finish with a victory without fighting tough through the next set. The Nittany Lions rallied back winning both the third and fourth set 25-19. The match then came down to a fifth set to determine the final outcome where the Spartans won 15-9.
"I thought we had a lot of opportunities to win the first and second games," head coach Russ Rose said. "Michigan State fought a lot harder than we played smart. We then came out and controlled the third and fourth game and in the fifth game we made nine errors. If you make nine errors in the fifth game, you're going to struggle."
Although errors prevented the Nittany Lions from winning the tough battle in the last set, Penn State outplayed Michigan State in several statistical categories while several players set new career highs. Sophomore Megan Courtney had 15 kills and 14 digs while junior Micha Hancock made nine kills and 57 assists.
Ariel Scott, Katie Slay, and Deja McClendon continued to lead the team in number of kills. Scott reached a season-high mark of 18 kills while Slay made 11 kills and McClendon had seven kills along with 14 digs.
"I thought A. Scott hit the ball well and Katie had a nice game offensively," Rose said. "I think Micha's a very competitive kid. But I think it's more important you give credit to Michigan State. They didn't win the statistics war, but they won the match because they fought hard at critical times."
With the first match of Big Ten play behind the Nittany Lions and a quick turn around before they played against Michigan, Slay knew how critical it was to look ahead to the future and not dwell in past matches. Before playing Michigan she expressed how important it would be for the team to change their mindset for Saturday evening.
"In sports, you have to have a short term memory in a way," Slay said. You can't come out moping or anything like that. We have a good team coming in and we need to defend our house, defend the Penn State name, and all of the people who came before us and play hard to show people what we're made of."
The next night the Nittany Lions did just that - they came out ready to play and used the motivation of their loss against Michigan State to their advantage as they defeated Michigan 3-2. They came out eager to win and finished the first set 25-16.
The Wolverines fought back during the second set winning 24-20, but Penn State didn't let them take away the momentum. Penn State won the third set 25-19 and the fourth set 25-17 to secure their first Big Ten victory of the season.
"It was a much better situation than we were in yesterday," Rose said on Saturday night. "I thought we played with a lot more emotion and I thought we controlled the ball a lot better. We needed to (close out the match). Certainly yesterday's exercise showed us leading doesn't always lead to winning. I thought we were better at that tonight."
McClendon made huge plays for the Nittany Lions against Michigan where she finished the night with 13 digs and a hitting percentage of .433. The senior also made 15 kills helping build the momentum for the match.
"I thought Deja had an exceptional match, the best match she's played in a long time," Rose said. "I'm happy she was able to do that for herself. She came out and passed great - passed about 80 percent of the serves - and she had a great night offensively. I'm thrilled for her to have a match like that where she was the leading hitter and leading digger on the court."
In-between the matches this weekend, Rose talked to the team about competing tough and having passion for the competition in front of them, which helped keep the players focused on what they wanted to accomplish.
"I had a few conversation points that I thought were worthy to pass on about competition and everybody caring," Rose said. "Everybody cares, it's how much do you care? What are you going to do to give your team a chance to have success and what are you wiling to wager all the time? We played a lot better tonight and had a good team effort for us against a very good Michigan team. It was nice for us to bounce back from yesterday."
In a conference with as much depth as the Big Ten has, the rankings change from week to week. The American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 25 Poll changes every Monday after the weekend competitions are over, but Rose knows that the team has a long season ahead of them and doesn't put too much focus on the rankings.
"It's early in the year where the rankings flip all the time. It's a really long season with two and a half months of Big Ten volleyball. There are 20 matches so we're about 10 percent in. You're just happy when you get a win," Rose said.
Taking what they learned from this weekend, the Nittany Lions will have a few days off from competition to prepare before traveling for more Big Ten play. The team will travel to Indiana to play on Thursday night and will then head to Purdue on Saturday with both matches starting at 7 p.m.
By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUSports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Hit the ball three times. Bounce the ball another three times. Place fingers on the seam. Look at the ball out in front. Focus. And toss.
These six steps have proven to be key for a successful serve from junior setter Micha Hancock, who had her 200th career ace this past weekend.
"[Getting 200 aces] is cool, but that's not the main focus of my serving. I'm just trying to help the team and move forward with getting better at the actual art of serving," Hancock said.
Head coach Russ Rose said Hancock's serving is a big part of the team's offense and its offensive potential.
"We generate the most points in [the rotations where Hancock is serving], and her serving also has an impact on limiting the other team's offensive structure," Rose said.
Hancock said it's "nice to know" that her serving can take away some of the pressures from the game, be it playing in front of a crowd or having a good opponent on the other side.
"When I come in the huddle after [an ace] everyone is like, 'Cool, we got a free point. Now let's reset and focus on the next one.' It's nice to know that I have the ability to do that," Hancock said.
Hancock added that serving is mostly mental.
"As a team, we have to get more mentally prepared in pressure situations to be able to handle it and get the ball in play," she said.
Hancock and the Nittany Lions will begin conference play this weekend when they host Michigan State and Michigan inside Rec Hall. The defending Big Ten champions will be seeking their 16th conference title since joining the Big Ten in 1992 when they open on Friday.
"The biggest difference [between non-conference and conference play] is now there is an increased value in all of the matches and in every practice. You need to be ready to play and everybody is going to fight tooth and nail to get a victory. You have to be ready to fight," Rose said.
The Big Ten Conference currently has eight teams in ranked in the top 25 of the AVCA rankings. In addition to the Nittany Lions, the list includes No. 9 Minnesota, No. 10 Michigan, No. 12 Nebraska, No. 13 Ohio State, No. 15 Michigan State, No. 20 Purdue and No. 24 Illinois.
Rose noted this week that the landscape of college volleyball has evolved in recent seasons. The west coast conferences used to rule the collegiate volleyball world, but Rose said the Big Ten Conference has become more dominant in recent years with help from the universities themselves.
"What separates the Big Ten is that all of the teams have received great commitments from their universities, which has resulted in great coaches, challenging facilities and big crowds on the road. It's an elevated commitment starting with the universities on down," Rose said.
"The best thing about the Big Ten Conference is that if you don't come ready to play, someone's going to check you. No matter who it is. It comes down to who's ready to play that night," Hancock said.
The Nittany Lions kick things off on Friday against the 15th-ranked Spartans, who enter the match with an 11-1 overall record (7 p.m. in Rec Hall). Michigan State senior outside hitter Lauren Wicinski had her 2,000th kill last weekend against Eastern Michigan. She is the leader in kills in Division I volleyball, and Coach Rose said Wicinski also has a solid serve.
"Wicinski and Micha were two of the leading servers in the country last year, so we're not the only one who understands the value of a good server," Rose said.
On Saturday, Penn State will face No. 10 Michigan at 7:30 p.m. in Rec Hall.
Michigan (10-1) had four players with double figures in kills in their match against then-No. 24 Ohio last weekend. Senior Jennifer Cross had 18 kills and a .457 hitting percentage.
Hancock's serving will be important against Michigan because limiting Cross's attack attempts can be limited with strong play at the service line.
"Michigan made it to the Final Four. They went to five games with Texas in their semifinal match. They're playing great. They've got a great setter and All-American outside hitters," Rose said.
Hancock said the team has a few things to focus before the Nittany Lions make the transition from non-conference play to conference play this weekend.
"Personally, I have to do a better job of seeing the middle block on the other side so I can get one on one's for my hitters. As a team, getting in a groove serving is probably our biggest thing," she said.
Coach Rose said the team will have to come ready to play.
"Both teams are in the top 15 in the country. Both of them have a great roster coming back from last year. And both teams a very good home or away," said Rose.
"It will be nice to know where we stand, what we need to work on, and what we're good at. [This weekend] going be a challenge, but we need to be prepared. It's going to be nice to foresee what's ahead for us," Hancock said.
Watch the Nittany Lions take on Michigan State (BTN Student U Stream) and Michigan live on the Big Ten Network this weekend.