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."
Recently in Women's Volleyball Category
By Chelsea Howard, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
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.
Story By Chelsea Howard, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - With non-conference play behind the women's volleyball team and a week to refine their skills, the No. 1 ranked team will open up Big Ten conference play at home against Michigan State on Friday at 7 p.m. and Michigan on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Coming off of the Penn State Classic, the team had a chance to learn from non-conference play before being matched up against a conference strong in depth. The players took the opportunity in more relaxed matches to stay focused on their habits.
"We're not just thinking about the weekend when we play non-conference matches," redshirt freshman Paulina Prieto Cerame said. "We're thinking about December and how we want to win a national championship. Since last spring, we've been thinking about our habits. Whatever habits we have everyday is what's going to affect us in the long run so creating good habits and staying focused is enough motivation."
With eight Big Ten teams ranked in the top 25, the value of each practice and match goes up requiring the players to be focused on the goals they set at the beginning of the season.
"There's increased value in all of the matches, in all of the practices," head coach Russ Rose said. "Once you get into the Big Ten, what separates the Big Ten teams is all of the teams have received great commitments from their university, which resulted in great coaches, challenging facilities, and big crowds on the road."
With the increased commitment to the sport of volleyball in the Big Ten, some of the players that Penn State will compete against throughout the rest of the season have taken a recruiting trip to State College and have seen Rec Hall from a different perspective.
"There's players on every team that we play that we have recruited," Rose said. "That's probably the big change. Everybody has players that if they have a good night - they could win. That's the challenge for every team. We pose the same threats to other teams. We have some strong players that if they have a good night that enhances our chance for winning."
Penn State will face some of the top players in the nation giving the team an advantage when it comes time to look at their ultimate goal of winning another national championship. The opportunity to compete against top 20 teams in two nights during a week sets the Big Ten conference a part from other conferences across the country.
"The greatest advantage that I've always felt about the Big Ten since we joined it is with the existing structure of the NCAA tournament, you play back to back nights against top 20 teams and it really prepares you for later on in the year," Rose said. "If you're hosting an invitational you can really relax, but if you travel it's a whole different atmosphere."
When it comes time to prepare for conference play, there's a shift in the mindset going into each match. With players who have been on national championship teams, Rose relies on these players to step up into leadership roles in crucial ways.
"Experienced players have working knowledge of competition in Big Ten and know how big all of the teams are both at home and on the road. We have to depend on the veteran players to not only do what they need to do but to be ready and assist the younger players to help make sure they're ready to come out of the gate strong."
Senior Deja McClendon has been on national championship teams and knows how to stay calm under high-pressure situations. Sharing her experiences, the outside hitter takes the approach of taking care of her own emotions and making sure they reflect positively for the younger players.
"A lot of helping (the underclassmen) is based on how you are and how you act," McClendon said. "If I stay smiling even though we're losing then the freshman think okay we're good, we don't need to worry as opposed to if we were to freak out. Whenever they have questions, we are the first people they ask because we've been through it before and we try to give them pointers that we've learned."
Taking guidance from McClendon is redshirt freshman Prieto Cerame. Since the upperclassmen have had up to three years competing against the same teams, they have a better idea of what to expect and how to approach the weekend.
"It helps a lot because the upperclassmen have already played against these teams and tell us how it's going to be," Prieto Cerame said. "They help in the sense that they don't see it any differently, they just know that no matter what we have to be at our best. It's just go time now."
This weekend as they open conference play against no. 15 Michigan State and no. 10 Michigan, the Nittany Lions will experience playing against highly athletic teams ready to compete.
"Both teams have a great roster coming back from last year," Rose said. "Michigan made it to the final four. They're playing great and they have a great setter and all-American outside hitters. They only replaced one player. Michigan State is an incredible physical team. Both are good home or away so we'll have to be ready to play."
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Penn State women's volleyball team finished non-conference play this past weekend at the Penn State Classic tournament defeating Albany, Eastern Kentucky, and Yale winning each match 3-0 in front of strong home crowds.
The No. 1-ranked Nittany Lions opened the tournament against Albany, only allowing the Great Danes a total of 16 points after all three sets. Seniors Ariel Scott, Katie Slay, and redshirt freshman Aiyana Whitney made a huge impact for the Nittany Lions offensively. Scott and Slay both led the team with eight kills while Whitney had a hitting percentage of .667 playing to a career high of seven kills, never giving Albany the chance to come back from a slow start.
"I think it was a match that Albany never had an opportunity to do what it was they wanted to do," head coach Russ Rose said. "They've had a tough stretch up until this point and there wasn't much we could do to assist them. Dom (Gonzalez) served 16 in a row and it was a relaxing environment in our case at home. We got everyone who had a uniform into action."
The match allowed freshman Kelly Robertson to make her debut in front of a lively Rec Hall. She opened her first college match with three kills and two block assists closing out a victory for the Nittany Lions.
"It was an honor and I was extremely excited to get in and play," Robertson said. "My teammates were good at helping me keep my head on straight. We got done what we needed to do and it was a lot of fun."
Saturday morning, the team came out with more dominant play against Eastern Kentucky winning the sets 25-10, 25-8, and 25-19. Junior Micha Hancock tallied 39 assists and passed the 200 career ace mark.
Joining Slay and Scott with the most kills for the match was Deja McClendon. All three players made it into the double digits. In order to be able to perform at this level during competition, Slay stressed how their preparation helps them take on their opponents, especially with Big Ten play coming up next on their schedule.
"It starts with the mindset," Slay said. "You have to come into practice everyday and work hard. During practice, we focus on the teams that we are going to play and then transfer that over to the weekend. The coaches do a good job watching a lot of film and then they come up with a really good game plan."
Later on Saturday, the Nittany Lions took on Yale in their final match of the Penn State Classic tournament, capturing the title after winning three straight sets. The players closed out the weekend continuing to dominate the court with Scott reaching a team-high of 13 kills. Gonzalez made a strong defensive showing after making 16 digs over the three sets and 44 digs after all three matches.
Yale proved to be the most competitive team for Penn State during the tournament, finishing the first set 25-16 and the second set 25-17. However, in the third set, the Nittany Lions held Yale to only six points. Gonzalez, Slay, and McClendon earned All-Tournament team after the match ended.
"I thought we played a really good third game," Rose said. "I thought we played pretty well at times in the first and second games, but we also had some stretches where we gave up four to five points in a row. Yale's not an overpowering physical team. They know how to play and they're not going to worry about the fact people jump over top of them."
With all of the non-conference matches behind them, the players know they have to focus on closing out the games and stopping the other teams from narrowing their lead.
"I thought we did a pretty good job our first two games to keep it short and put it away," McClendon said. "I feel like that's what we're supposed to do. One of the games we had 24 points and we didn't put it away, When we start playing more competitive teams, we need to just put it away."
Looking ahead to the rest of the season and what's to come, Rose notes how strong the depth of Big Ten volleyball has become and the difference in this tournament compared to playing teams in their conference.
"The next 10 weeks we are going to play two matches a week in a conference where we're playing against people our size so it's a whole different situation," Rose said. "It's nice to have played better in the last game tonight."
With eight Big Ten teams ranked in the top 25 and one team that fell out of the rankings last week, the Nittany Lions are in for a highly competitive season. Through teamwork and the experience of the upperclassmen, Rose knows it's up to the players to keep each other accountable.
"That's a pretty full schedule - that's 18 of our 20 matches," Rose said. "What concerns me is how we're going to handle that. We have some players that have a lot experience - some have won Big Ten championships and some have won national championships so we'll see if they do the things they have to do to become a better team. There's a fire that exists that makes the team better than the individuals that are playing. That's the component they have to work on themselves."
By Chelsea Howard, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Penn State women's volleyball team held its first open practice on Wednesday to allow the student body to see first hand what goes into creating one of the top programs in the country.
The practice was open to all students to watch with the chance to meet and interact with the players afterwards through an autograph session. The students had the opportunity to meet head coach Russ Rose and assistant coach Steve Aird, who took the time to explain some of the drills that the team was doing during the practice. Announcer Steve Jones also made an appearance, thanking the students for their support and coming out to watch the players.
This season marks the first time the student section has been named. Playing off of the name Rec Hall where the Nittany Lions compete at home, the student section chose the name "The wRECking Crew" after a suggestion from a Twitter follower.
"I thought that was clever," Ariel Scott said. "A lot of other Big Ten schools have creative names for their student section, but this is the first time that we have chosen a name. I think it's awesome."
President of the official student section, Sam Webb helped organize the event and encourages more people to get involved with the organization to get to know the players on a more personalized level.
"We went to assistant coach Steve Aird and outlined our goals for what we wanted to do and he said the first thing he wanted to do was make this an official organization," Webb said. "I'm hoping we get even more people, but I'm also expecting that the people who come out are going to see how amazing the girls after they meet them face-to-face. Hopefully we'll get even more students who want to join for the same reason."
Take a look at what took place during the open practice in Rec Hall with The wRECking crew and the women's volleyball team.