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Nittany Lions Advance to Second Round Against Utah

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By Chelsea Howard, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The wait for the NCAA tournament to begin is finally over as the women's volleyball team opened up the first round defeating LIU-Brooklyn in front of a home crowd and a packed student section in Rec Hall.

9527599.jpegThe Nittany Lions won in three straight sets (25-21, 25-21, 25-14). Junior Micha Hancock started the night off with a service ace. She finished the night with four aces and 32 of the teams' 38 assists.

In the second set, junior Nia Grant played a huge role in blocking where she made two block assists. After the third set, Grant led the Nittany Lions in blocks for the night with one solo block and six block assists. Senior Katie Slay was right behind her as she registered one solo block and five block assists, in addition to adding eight kills to the offense.

At the end of the third set, Penn State led LIU-Brooklyn 24-14 when senior Maggie Harding scored the match point and ended the set with a service ace. The fans in Rec Hall erupted as the Nittany Lions advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

"I thought it was a match where Long Island played really hard and they do the things that they do well," head coach Russ Rose said. "I thought Katie (Slay) did a nice job hitting and blocking and I thought Micha (Hancock) was serving well tonight. I was really happy Maggie could come in as a senior and score an ace in the NCAA match. That was one thing I enjoyed this evening."

Earlier in the evening, Utah defeated Yale with a four-match win (27-29, 25-15, 26-24, 25-16). With the win, Utah advances to play the Nittany Lions in the second round. One thing Penn State will have to look out for is their blocking. Against Yale, they registered 12 blocks as a team.

"They're a good blocking team," Rose said. "I thought they blocked really well and Yale really competed. They're coming from the conference that have the most number of teams in the NCAA tournament so they're going to be a tough opponent for us."

Follow the Nittany Lions as they continue their journey through the NCAA tournament where they will take on Utah at 7:30 on Saturday night in Rec Hall. 

NCAA Volleyball Tournament Central: Lions Open at Home

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - For the 24th consecutive season, Penn State will host the first and second rounds of the NCAA Women's Volleyball Tournament.  The 2013 Big Ten champion Nittany Lions (28-2) open the tournament against LIU Brooklyn (23-7) on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Rec Hall.

9387397 (1).jpegThe winner of the Penn State-LIU Brooklyn match will move on to face either Yale (20-4) or Utah (20-12) on Saturday night at 7:30 p.m.

For the Nittany Lions, they enter the tournament red-hot on a 19-match winning streak.  Penn State's two losses both came in five sets (at No. 1 Texas on Sept. 7 and vs. Michigan State on Sept. 27).  The Lions tallied a 14-1 mark inside Rec Hall in 2013.

In all, Penn State enters its first round match of the NCAA Tournament having won 28 of its last 31 sets.  Led by a trio of seniors, the Nittany Lions claimed seven postseason Big Ten awards earlier this week. Individually, junior Micha Hancock was tabbed as the Big Ten Setter of the Year and Russ Rose earned Big Ten Coach of the Year honors.  Seniors Ariel Scott, Deja McClendon and Katie Slay, along with Hancock were named to the All-Big Ten team.

The Nittany Lions are one of eight Big Ten teams in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.  Nebraska is the No. 8 seed, Minnesota is the No. 10 seed, Wisconsin is the No. 12 seed and Illinois is the No. 13 seed.  Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue are the remaining Big Ten teams in the draw.  Minnesota, Michigan State and Penn State are all in same quarter of the draw (Lexington Regional).

Now, it is win or go home for all 64 teams on the bracket. The 2013 NCAA Tournament begins on Friday inside Rec Hall.


VIDEO: NCAA Tournament Player Preview Interviews



First Round Statistical Rundown

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Feature Story Corner

From the eyes of Coach Rose:

Taking One Match At a Time
Story By Chelsea Howard, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - After a successful week traveling to Ohio State and Nebraska, the Nittany Lions closed out their final matches of the regular season on a high note, giving them the confidence they need to enter the NCAA tournament. 


9522673.jpegThe Nittany Lions have put in over five months of dedication and hard work while keeping in mind their ultimate goal - to win a national championship. With the tournament starting at Rec Hall this weekend, it's their chance to capitalize on that goal. However, the players have to remember that they can only focus on one match at a time.

"Now the brackets have been announced for the NCAA tournament and it's time to shift gears like the other 63 teams in the country and prepare for the tournament," head coach Russ Rose said. "You have to play well to advance and you have to play one opponent at a time. You can't start looking at future opponents, we have to focus on the team you have in front of you."

After winning 19-straight matches, it's clear that the players know how to work together as a team. Coach Rose stressed that it's more important to play good volleyball than it is the number of matches the team has won in a row.

Coming off the Nebraska match and knowing the stress of travel, Rose was excited to see that distractions were not an issue for the Nittany Lions while competing on the road.

"The Nebraska match was a really good match because it was two really evenly matched teams playing in a partisan crowd, but it wasn't a partisan crowd for us. It was good because we were able to handle the additional distractions. Knowing that we have one weekend at home and if you're fortunate enough to advance, then you're playing on the road. We have to be able to have success in certain environments," Rose said.

Knowing that they could handle the atmosphere on the road at Nebraska will help the players as they advance through any challenges the tournament may present.

"That gives the players a little more confidence that they can handle tough situations," Rose said. "You're always going to have tough situations with the NCAA. It's never going to be an easy situation where you go out there and overpower people. Everyone has challenges and we're not going to be immune to that."

The players, especially the senior class, which helped capture the 2010 national title, have learned from these challenges throughout their career. They know what is expected of them and how to help guide those who have not been through the process.

"The expectations are really high here," Rose said. "They know that while they're here - you play the preseason to get yourself ready for conference play and then conference play prepares you for NCAA tournament. NCAA's are a sprint. The persons and team that win the tournament will have won six matches. That's what our focus is."

Entering the tournament, Penn State is ranked no. 2 in the AVCA Coaches Poll. However, Rose does not take that for granted.

"I don't look at it as we're ahead of anyone," Rose said. "Texas and us have a long streak and Missouri has a 30 match winning streak. We need to worry about the opponent on the other side of the net and focus on them and not look ahead."

Heading into the first round of the tournament where the Nittany Lions, the players will rely on their preparation from throughout the year and won't make many changes to their practice regime.

"We'll get the NCAA balls we'll have to play with and I know the players will have to focus on academics so we won't go really long. We'll focus on some things today and try and fix some of the team things that Nebraska exposed we weren't really good at," Rose said.

The team is eager for what is ahead.

"We've played Long Island before and I expect their team to be really competitive. The other half of the bracket is Yale, who we played earlier in the year and Utah, who came from the conference who has provided the most teams in the NCAA this year."

With preseason and conference play behind them, the Nittany Lions will take what they have learned this season and put it to the test throughout the competition during the tournament while taking advantage of being on their home court.



From the eyes of the players:

Nittany Lions Kick Off Postseason This Weekend
Story By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - November quickly came and went, as did the Penn State women's volleyball regular season. The Nittany Lions will begin the NCAA Tournament this weekend on their home court against Long Island-Brooklyn on Friday.

9522665.jpegLIU won the Northeast Conference this year with a 23-7 record. Long Island outside hitter Annika Foit has tallied 369 kills this season, while Penn State's leading attacker, senior outside hitter Deja McClendon, has tallied 305.

The LIU program is familiar with the atmosphere in Rec Hall. This will be the fourth time that the Blackbirds have played at Penn State in the NCAA Tournament. They were defeated by Penn State in 2005, 2006, and 2008.

Although LIU is not ranked in the top 25, the Nittany Lions are not overlooking their opponent's talent.

"One of the most important things is that coach always comes into the game thinking that this is going to be the toughest game we play," McClendon said. "He makes us think that so when we get out there, we don't underestimate anybody that we play. It keeps us on top of our stuff."

The match on Friday night puts a lot of pressure on junior setter Micha Hancock because this postseason is the last shot for the senior class, but it's a "fun, anxious pressure," she said.

"I know that we're a talented group and I know that if we play well, we're going to be hard to stop. So it's just up to us. We have to put it out there on the court," Hancock said.

This senior class has three years of experience in the NCAA Tournament, including being part of a national championship team in 2010. Having experience can be to the team's advantage because the players know what to expect out of the tournament. Senior middle hitter Katie Slay said this year's postseason feels different for these seniors, however, because they are the ones setting the tone.

"Our freshman year, when we were the young ones, there were older people on the team with lots of experience, and we were able to relax and do whatever they did and just follow their lead," Slay said.  "Now that we're the experienced players, it's our job to set the tone for the team and keep everyone relaxed. It's important that we put our experience to work."

McClendon said playing tough matches this season, like the match against Nebraska last weekend, has prepared them for the postseason because playing in a gym with a large crowd against a good team is very similar to how the tournament is. The Nebraska match taught the team a valuable lesson just in time for the post season.

"[The Nebraska match] was important for us because we were down by a couple points and we didn't give up. We could have easily just said, 'Okay, next game.' But we grinded it out and we stuck in it, and we ended up tying the game and then winning both of those third and fourth sets," Slay said. "That was a really good learning experience for us."

The team is feeling confident heading into the postseason after playing a tough Big Ten season, but the players know that they still have to work hard because they will playing talented teams in the tournament.

"We haven't reached our peak yet, and that's the biggest thing for us because that means we still have a way to go to get better. But at the same time, we've done a lot better playing the group, team game," McClendon said. "At Nebraska, we played our best team-volleyball, where not all of us played great, but at the same time, we all stepped up at certain points in the match and then we won the match."

The No. 2-ranked Nittany Lions kick their postseason off against LIU on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Rec Hall.

"It's our last [NCAA Tournament]. We want to go out with a bang," senior Ariel Scott said.


 

Follow GoPSUsports.com's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

VIDEO: Happy Thanksgiving from Penn State Athletics

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - 'Tis the season for giving thanks, and Penn State Athletics would like to take an opportunity to say thank you to the loyal fans on Thanksgiving.

As you sit down with family and friends to eat your traditional meal while the Lions and Cowboys host their annual Thanksgiving day home games, Penn State Athletics would like to thank you, the fans, for the unrivaled support you give every team on campus.  Penn State's teams would not be the same without the greatest fans in college sports.

As a token of their appreciation, several student-athletes from teams on campus would like to say thank you and Happy Thanksgiving for the support you give them throughout the athletic season.


Four Years Come to a Close for Six Seniors

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By Chelsea Howard, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -
When the six seniors first came to Penn State and went through preseason their freshman year, they never thought they would make it through four years. However, with senior night here - the four years went by fast as it's a bittersweet time for the players who started playing the sport at such a young age.

9481954.jpegWith only four regular season matches left in their collegiate careers, these seniors want to end their senior year the way that they started their freshman year - with a national championship.

"It's a full progression and evolution for them," head coach Russ Rose said. "All of those guys have had a major impact on the program. Despite the fact I'm hard on them all the time - soon they'll be done. We're graduating three people who have started for four years. We haven't had that many kids who have started for four years in the 35 years I've been here."

Take a closer look at each of the senior's journey through their collegiate career as a Nittany Lion and their thoughts as their time comes to a close.

8         Erica Denney
Coming out of high school as a member of an undefeated team (31-0) and traveling to the 2009 World Championships as a member of the youth national team, Erica Denny faced an injury and took a redshirt her freshman year. In her second year with the Nittany Lions, she made her collegiate debut against Rutgers where she registered a kill. During both her sophomore and junior years, she earned Academic All-Big Ten and continued her junior year appearing in six matches and nine sets. The Colorado native recorded her first start against DePaul in 2012.

15       Maggie Harding
Maggie Harding came to Penn State from just a few miles away. As an active member of the Student Athlete Advisory Board and captain for the season, Harding has proven to be one of the strongest leaders on the team. At the  NCAA Semi-finals Championship last year, she earned the Elite 89 Award after having the top GPA of all of the student-athletes at the tournament.

"It's exciting because it's a big time of the year and we have a lot coming up, but it's bittersweet. I've been watching Penn State volleyball since I was five, so knowing it's coming to an end is pretty tough. But knowing I was a part of it and contributing what I can to the program is pretty cool."

6           Maddie Martin  
Earning Academic All-Big Ten honors during her sophomore and junior year, Maddie Martin has proven to be another strong leader in the senior class for the underclassmen to follow. Making an immediate impact her freshman year, she played in 20 matches and 29 sets. The outside hitter reached a career high hitting percentage at Indiana in 2010 at .600. Her first two kills were against Villanova and she took that momentum into a strong sophomore season where she played in 33 matches - starting in 24 of them. During her junior season, she registered 51 kills, 14 aces, 71 digs and eight blocks. With only a few matches left, the Tampa, Fla., native cannot believe how fast the four years have gone by.

"It's weird - you think during your freshman year while you're going through preseason that it's never going to end. Looking back on it now - it went so fast. (Playing under Russ Rose) is cool; he's such an amazing person and such an amazing coach. Knowing we've played for a legend is just a great feeling."

18            Deja McClendon
The outside hitter from Louisville, Ky., did not waste any time getting adjusted to the college volleyball scene as she was named the 2010 AVCA Division I National Freshman of the Year and started in all 37 matches. She was also the only freshman to earn a spot on the 2010 AVCA All-American team. McClendon continued to develop into the player she is today through her sophomore year adding 2011 AVCA First Team All-America to the list of honors and was the Unanimous Preseason All-Big Ten. During her junior year, she kept her competitive edge going as she set a career high hitting percentage of .800 against Binghamton. She also hit a career high of 29 digs at Michigan proving to be a versatile player. The outside hitter has made 247 kills and 239 digs this season giving her an impressive total of 1,500 kills and a career total of 1,052 digs with four matches left before championship season.

"It doesn't feel real - it's a sad moment but at the same time it's a good time to look back on everything we've accomplished and where we want to end the season. There were points where we were really low and points where we were really high and to see us where we are now it's just crazy that we did finish this together. That's probably one of the most important parts for me - that we've been through thick and thin together."

1          Ariel Scott
Known as A. Scott to the team, the outside hitter has developed into one of the key players for the Nittany Lions. During her freshman year, she played in 20 matches gaining experience early in her collegiate career. She went into her sophomore year and was named AVCA Third Team All-America and Unanimous First Team All-Big Ten. The New Jersey native was second on the team with 418 kills for the 2011 season. Scott added even more honors to the list making AVCA First Team All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year with her strong performances during her junior year. She set a career high of 85 attacks against Stanford during that season. Registering 244 kills so far this season, Scott totals 1,274 kills for her collegiate career.

"It's really crazy seeing how far we've come. It's bittersweet because we made it, but it's kind of sad too since it's our last home game. Freshman year going from preseason not knowing if we're going to make it, being the hardest thing we've ever done and then winning that year. For me I went from not playing to being on the court so it was definitely a big development year for me."

16        Katie Slay
Throughout Slay's four years as a Nittany Lion, she has proven to be one of the most consistent and dependable players for the team. Her freshman year, she started in 11 matches and played in 23 where she totaled 54 kills and a hitting percentage of .404. Her sophomore year, she did not hold anything back as she was named AVCA Second Team All-America and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. She also hit career highs with 16 kills against Wisconsin in 2011. During her junior year, the Raleigh, N.C. native continued to put up impressive defensive performances. She made a career high of 12 blocks against Michigan. This season, she has added 19 solo blocks and 132 block assists to her career totals giving her 74 solo blocks and 497 block assists and a total of 571 blocks throughout her career.

"It's exciting - senior year I've just been trying to soak it all in. Freshman year we just did whatever the upperclassmen did. I remember playing in the national championship match and it didn't feel like a huge deal - I didn't feel stressed out because the upperclassmen were dancing in the locker room and doing whatever we usually did before any other match. As we've gotten older, we had to set the bar for the team. We're the one's who have to put out a persona."

VIDEO: Slay and Seniors Approach Last Home Regular Season Weekend

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Story By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Senior Katie Slay has just four matches left in the regular season of college career. Throughout her four years at Penn State, blocking has been her strongest suit.

9318114 (1).jpegFor the second week in a row, Slay was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week.  In the matches against Wisconsin and Minnesota, she had a total of 16 blocks, eight against each team. She averaged 2.67 blocks per set. She is leading the Big Ten in blocks per set (1.68) and ranks third in blocking nationally.

"[Blocking] is the main thing that I feel I can contribute. In every match, [blocking] is equally important because it helps set up our whole defense," Slay said. "The diggers can play around the block when it's set up well, so I think it's always a big factor."

The middle hitter has been working on her step approach this season to improve her blocking.

"I've tried to work on not making false steps, so just waiting to move until the setter sets the ball. That's something I've been trying to work on, that way I can do a better job of getting more hitters and to set up a double block," Slay said.

The team as a whole has been very strong defensively. The Nittany Lions (24-2) are leading the conference in blocking. Head coach Russ Rose said the team is dominant in blocking because of the size of the team.

"You have to put your team together with what you have. We have some good-sized kids, so blocking is more important to us than if we were really small and quick," Rose said. "It's something we spend time on and we recognize that it's something we need to be better at." 

The No. 2 Nittany Lions will face Northwestern on Friday. Blocking will important, as Slay says it is in every match.

Northwestern (16-12) is on a two-game winning streak, having just defeated No. 18 Purdue and Indiana last weekend. The team is ranked seventh in the Big Ten. In their last matchup, Penn State defeated the Wildcats in three sets, but the team has changed its lineup around.

"Everything is different. Northwestern has change their lineup a bit, but the thing I've always like about Northwestern is that they are very bright. I've always liked the fact that they play really hard," Rose said. "I think [Head Coach] Keylor [Chan] does a really good job. They've got some kids that take big swings and to me, they don't get down when things go bad."

Catch the match at Rec Hall on Friday at 7 p.m. (Big Ten Network- Student U).

On Saturday, the Nittany Lions will take on the Fighting Illini for the team's annual Senior Night, to honor the six seniors on the team this year. Senior night can be an emotional celebration, but the team plans to remain focused throughout the game.

"We all know that we are playing good teams this weekend. Illinois is ranked now and Northwestern received votes for the Top 25 poll, so we're playing good teams," Slay said. "That should be motivation enough to stay focused. Senior night is a little bit of a distraction, but at the same time, its only as much as you make it."

Penn State last faced No. 20 Illinois in mid-October and defeated the Illini in five sets. The team is ranked fourth in the conference and is currently on a five-game winning streak. Rose said Illinois has three or four "terrific" attackers that Penn State also recruited.

Rose noted that the team is in a good position to finish the season on a high note, but "it's never that easy," because Penn State's opponents are playing for something, too.

"It's not like [Illinois] is going to say, 'Oh, great. It's senior night for these guys, let's lay on our back and get a belly rub.' Illinois is in fourth in the conference right now," Rose said. "[They are] still concerned about making sure they're over .500 so that they are eligible. They're between being eligible and being a Top 16 seed. That's how good they are."

Rose has been watching film on both Northwestern and Illinois, and is not looking past this weekend.

"We're not thinking of anything other than being ready to play this weekend. I'm not thinking about the tournament," Rose said.

The Illinois match is slated for Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Rec Hall.

Harding Emerges as a Leader

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By Chelsea Howard, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Born just 30 miles away from State College in Lewiston, Pa., Maggie Harding originally had no intentions of coming to Penn State. However, after making the realization that she could still branch out and do her own thing, she knew she couldn't pass up the opportunity to play as a Nittany Lion.

9455395.jpeg"A lot of kids from my high school come here, so I wanted to go away and do my own thing," Harding said. "But through the recruiting process, I would always talk to Coach Rose and he gave me the opportunity to play here. I knew if I made the effort to get to know other people and be my own person I could still do that while coming to Penn State. You don't get that opportunity anywhere else, so I knew I couldn't turn it down."

Four years later, there's no question as to whether or not she's branched out and been her own person. Playing an integral role as a part of the team and acting as Treasurer with the Student Athlete Advisory Board (SAAB) all while maintaining a 4.0, Harding has never passed up an opportunity to get involved beyond the volleyball team.

"I basically live with my team, which is great and I love it," Harding said. "But when you meet athletes from other teams, you see a different perspective on campus and on their sport and their majors. I love getting to see how different we are but at the same time how similar in why we are here - that we are Penn State athletes and that we represent our school along with so many other people when we compete."

Her involvement both on and off the court have led to Harding's development into a strong leadership role, which makes it easy for the younger players to look up to her.

"She's involved in a lot of things, she has a 4.0, she's an incredibly hard worker," head coach Russ Rose said. "If people elect to not follow that sort of individual, then they must have some challenges themselves. All of the things Maggie does are things that would warrant people's respect."

Coach Rose named Harding captain for this season, but it's not just about one person on the team with a title. It's about several players coming together and leading by example through their experiences.

"Leaders emerge, captains are appointed," Rose said. "When you have five or six older players they should be responsible for what the needs of the team are - we shouldn't have a person who steps up and reminds the team what it is to be a college athlete or what they're responsibilities are, but certainly Maggie is a really good role model and a person that takes those sort of things really seriously."

With Harding's passion and devotion to the sport, the title wasn't as important to her as making an impact on the team she's grown to love.

"I was very honored when coach named that," Harding said. "I told him it didn't matter to me what the title was. I didn't care if he named me captain or not - I was obviously going to do the same stuff. Everybody on the team has something to contribute and that's what he felt like giving me so I'm just honored."

The leadership she shows in front of her teammates definitely doesn't go unnoticed. Even before sophomore Lacey Fuller was on the team, she noticed how invested in the program she was.

"When I was a recruit, I remember her going out of her way to make me feel comfortable," Fuller said. "Maggie is a selfless person and is always trying to help the team. She comes to practice with energy and if were not doing well she'll bring us together and try to get us back on track. She's very invested in our team and every player and just wants the best for all of us."

Like many players on the team, academics have become a priority for Harding since coming to Penn State. Last year at NCAA national semifinals Harding was the recipient of the Elite 89 Award. The award was given to honor the student-athlete who has the highest cumulative grade-point average and is participating at the finals for each of the NCAA's 89 competitions.

"It was really neat," Harding said. "I work hard in school, but everyone on our team definitely does. For me, it wouldn't have happened if my team didn't make it to the Final Four. It was an honor for me, but my whole team is what made it happen."

Achieving the Elite 89 Award, attending high school at State College Area High School just minutes away from Penn State, and her involvement in SAAB all make her a unique student-athlete. But adding the fact that 10 of her relatives attended the same university makes her unlike any other student-athlete. Of her 10 relatives, four of them were also athletes.

"It's awesome to be able to say my grandpa, my step-grandpa, my great uncle, my dad were all on teams here and just to be a part of that. When you're here as a student-athlete now, you feel part of a big student-athlete family," Harding said. "Knowing that they were a part of that family too makes it pretty neat to follow in their footsteps."

Knowing the history behind the program and having the opportunity to contribute to the future of the program has been the most rewarding experience for Harding.

"There are 38 years of women who played before us and we know that they all played in South Gym on the same floorboards, the same nets. We're doing the same drills as these women who came before us and built the program who put the banners up that we look at everyday," Harding said. "So just being a part of that tradition and history and hopefully adding whatever I can to contribute to it for the future is the best part."

With three years and a few months of playing as a Nittany Lion behind her, the season coming to a close is a bittersweet feeling.

"I like my major and I'm excited to move on and start a career, but I've been playing volleyball since fifth grade so it's sad," Harding said. "I grew up watching it here so getting to play here has been so cool. Knowing that I always got to be apart of it and when I move on, I'll still have been a part of it - so that's awesome."

Grant's Improvement Plays Big Role in Lions' Success

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By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Nia Grant's improvement this season cannot be ignored. The junior outside hitter went from not starting matches to being the leading hitter in conference matches in the Big Ten. Last weekend, Grant recorded a .727 hitting percentage against Purdue.

9448342.jpegGrant's improvement has not gone unnoticed amongst her teammates, either.

"Lately, Nia has been really good at scoring points for us and bringing energy. Hopefully she keeps doing that. It has really helped us out," junior defensive specialist Lacey Fuller said.

Grant said she has improved on her consistency the most this season. She has been working on keeping her game at the same level all of the time, rather than being high and low through the match. She added that collectively, the team has shown improvement in being more consistent throughout the entire match.

"We're learning how to finish games. Before, we would start the game well and then drift off, but I think we've been starting games well and ending games well," Grant said.

Penn State women's volleyball head coach Russ Rose is hopeful that Grant will continue to be as aggressive this weekend.

"Nia has made really good strides. She is serving well, she makes plays in the back row, and she's leading the conference in hitting," Rose said.

The Nittany Lions (22-2) will match up against No. 14 Wisconsin on Friday night in Madison. Wisconsin is 8-6 in the Big Ten. Penn State is 13-1. The Badgers are coming off a conference win against Iowa. Rose said the team is an incredibly aggressive, defensive team that is playing well with an offensive minded setter.

"Wisconsin's back row is the best defense in the country. They always have two or three kids on the floor that are just great defensive players," Rose said. "You have to be patient. You have to weather the storm of them making great plays and keeping the rally alive and doing the things that have enabled them to have a good season."

The No. 2 Nittany Lions will face No. 11 Minnesota on Saturday night at 8:30 in Minneapolis. The Golden Gophers are 10-4 in the Big Ten, and are 9-1 at home. Minnesota lost to Nebraska last weekend. Rose said he is sure that the Gophers will be playing better this weekend, with a game plan that's different than the last time they played Penn State.

"Minnesota was a game out of second place last week (playing with Nebraska for second place). We played Minnesota last year in the finals of regionals to go the Final Four, so we know how good Minnesota is, how good the players are and how difficult it is to play on their home court," Rose said.

Rose and Grant agreed that blocking is the aspect of Grant's game that needs the most work. Blocking will be crucial this weekend against both Wisconsin and Minnesota. When the Nittany Lions take on Minnesota, they will have to come prepared to block Minnesota senior middle hitter Tori Dixon. Dixon has tallied 346 kills this season.

"The last time we matched up with Minnesota, Dixon, who is an incredible talent, manhandled (Grant) a little bit. I'm interested to see if Nia puts in a different effort this time," Rose said.

"I think everybody is going to come at us with a little bit of aggression, but we should be doing the same thing to everybody," Grant said.

Her goal for this season is likely to match many of her teammates'.

"I just want to win a national championship. Whatever I have to do to make that happen, that's what I'm willing to do," Grant said.

Wins Over Purdue and Indiana Keep the Big Picture in Mind

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By Chelsea Howard, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Coming off of strong wins on the road against Michigan and Michigan State, the women's volleyball team returned home on Friday and Saturday night to continue testing their level of performance against Purdue and Indiana, and the team walked away with two more wins to add to their record.

9440694.jpegThe Nittany Lions came out Friday night defeating Purdue by winning three straight sets (25-18, 25-22, 25-21). Junior Nia Grant led the team with a hitting percentage of .727 while Deja McClendon continued her string of strong performances, registering 13 kills for the team.

In Penn State's last matchup against the Boilermakers, the Nittany Lions fought to a victory closing the final set 15-8. This weekend, the players held off No. 14 Purdue in three sets. Although the Lions walked off the floor victorious, head coach Russ Rose challenged the players to play at an even higher level the next night against Indiana.

"I look at the big picture - if you want to compete for a national championship you have to play at a certain level at all times," Rose said. "One of the goals is to play really well and to play with passion and to have a level of enthusiasm that the 3,200 people that come to watch feel and enjoy,"

The Nittany Lions followed the lead of Rose's expectations and relied on each other to come together as a team and perform even stronger against Indiana. They went on to compete at the level needed to prepare for tougher competition in their quest to contend for a national title later in the season. 

Against Indiana, Penn State won three straight sets (25-16, 25-11, 25-11) with McClendon's hitting percentage at .643 followed by Micha Hancock hitting at .600. The team made a combined 37 kills and a total of 15.5 blocks, holding the Hoosiers to only one.

"I thought we played much better tonight (against Indiana) with a great crowd, the energy was high, all of the above was right in place," head coach Russ Rose said. "I thought it was a good effort and I thought Deja played well both nights."

One of the elements that the team focused on changing was the amount of energy they brought to the court. In front of a packed Rec Hall on Saturday night, the players fed off of the fan's energy and got their momentum started from the beginning of the match.

"We didn't feel like we had as much energy or fire so we really wanted to focus on that coming into tonight against Indiana," McClendon said.

Using that energy, the Nittany Lions kept in mind what was to come for the rest of the season. With Big Ten and NCAA tournaments only six matches away, every opportunity to come out and play tough is crucial for the women to rehearse what it's going to take to play against some of the top teams in the nation. The players knew going into the match against Indiana that they would have to look to each other to make the adjustments needed.

"Our team is very self-motivated," Slay said. "I know a lot of the underclassmen want to play hard not only for our teammates but also for us seniors. It was the same thing when we were underclassmen. We're winding down to the end of the year and we know that we only have a few more opportunities to play together. I think it's just something we all know without having to say it."

Continuing to set an example for the underclassmen, Slay earned Academic All-District Honors and will now be considered for national honors as an Academic All-American. Within the District II category, she was one of six athletes to earn the honor.

"I think Katie (Slay) should be recognized for her academic scholar award. I think that's a great award for anyone that plays sports - she definitely works hard in both volleyball and academics," Rose said.

Taking away from this weekend and looking ahead to the rest of the season, the players use that same self-motivation to continue to improve and work together as a team to reach their ultimate goals of the season.

"There's always things you need to work on and coach points them out. It's nice when we do things well, we just need to come back into the gym and keep working hard," McClendon said. "You can't be satisfied with what you've been doing."

Nittany Lions Feed off of Grant's Energy

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By Chelsea Howard, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Following in the footsteps of her mother, who also played volleyball, Nia Grant knew after coming to a few of Penn State's volleyball camps in high school that she wanted to pursue a career at that level and was willing to do whatever it took to get there.

9423153.jpeg"I went to a couple of the camps for three or four years and I was really bad," Grant said. "I was a basketball player at first and I didn't really think about volleyball. Then I came here for the camps and that had a lot of influence because that was my first real exposure to college volleyball. After that, I knew that was where I wanted to be."

Having a mother who was heavily involved in the sport helped Grant get started in recreational play that eventually turned into striving to win a national championship.

"My mom played so she introduced me to it," Grant said. "I didn't start playing until my freshman year in high school. Both my parents did whatever it took to get me where I wanted to get and I wanted to get here and they got me here."

When Grant was considering schools and where she wanted to go, she knew with head coach Russ Rose's experience that she would grow in his program. Knowing his legacy and interacting with him during the camps didn't leave much of a question as to where she wanted to attend college.  

"(Coach Rose) knows what he wants and he strives for perfection which is good," Grant said. "Any other coach hasn't seen the sport like he has - he's been through four years straight of winning a national championship. He knows what it takes. If you listen and soak it all in you can be one of those big name players that left here."

During the recruiting process, head coach Russ Rose saw positive qualities in the junior's athleticism and background that he knew would contribute to her success as a Nittany Lion.

"Nia came to camp for a number of years when she was young," Rose said. "She has a terrific frame, she's very quick, she played for a good club with a demanding club coach and I thought those were all positive things."

In the last few matches, whenever Grant steps on the court the intensity she brings changes the pace for the Nittany Lions. Against Illinois, the outside hitter made 10 kills and had a hitting percentage of .500. She then came out two days later against Northwestern registering 11 kills and a hitting percentage of .769.

"She didn't start in the Illinois match, but when she came in she brought in great energy as well as great performance and I thought she was the key player in that match," Rose said. "Then she came out and played great the next night against Northwestern."

Not only does coach Rose notice her strong performances, but her teammates react when she is having a good night and build off of her energy which helps set the tone of the matches.

"If you watch the past couple of matches you can see Nia changed the dynamic of our team," Deja McClendon said. "As an outside hitter, she's helped open up a lot of one on ones for me and I'm really thankful that she can hit that slide so well. You can see the blockers on the other side of the net when she hits well - they're minds are scattered."

In the last two games in Rec Hall, Grant proved to be a key contributor to helping the Nittany Lions secure the wins. Against Ohio State she had a hitting percentage of .400 and against Iowa she made 5 kills with a .625 hitting percentage.

"Nia is the kind of person who doesn't get hyped right away but as soon as she does something well she gets really excited. It's just really fun to play with her. Whenever she's playing well she's a huge asset to the team and I feel really lucky to be able to play with her," McClendon said.

As Grant transitions into being a junior and one of the older players on the court, she wants to take advantage of the time she has left to play as a Nittany Lion and represent the university.

"The focus is still the same - we still want to win every game and we want to win the national championship," Grant said. "The realization that college is almost over really got me into gear. The fact that I'm going to be done next December, I don't have that much time to wait anymore."

As the Nittany Lions begin the final four weeks of Big Ten matches, Grant will take advantage of each opportunity she has to wear the number seven on her jersey.

 

McClendon Hopeful to Lead Lions to More Success

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By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa
. - Penn State volleyball means three things to senior Deja McClendon - the opportunity to become the best volleyball player she can be, to make lifelong, meaningful friends and the opportunity to go places.

9420127.jpegThe outside hitter has played a crucial role on this team, hitting at .280 and averaging .6 blocks per game. She began her journey with the program as a hitter, but she has transformed into one of the team's best passers.

"For her to be our primary passer, receiving the most number of serves, and to be the fifth players with 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs, is a real tribute to the development that she's made as a player," head coach Russ Rose said.  

This season, McClendon had led the No. 2-ranked team in kills five times and has led the team in digs eight times. She has had double figures in kills in six matches and double figures in digs in eight matches. She also leads the team in a mental aspect. As a senior, she is one the most experienced players on the court and guides the younger players.

"Deja is the calm in the storm. When there's a lot of stuff going on, she tries to get the team to calm down and relax," junior outside hitter Nia Grant said.

The Louisville native has tallied 206 kills this season, only seven behind team-leader Ariel Scott. She has 45 blocks this season, 15 solo and 30 assisted blocks. She also has 211 digs, the second most on the team, only behind libero Dominique Gonzalez.

"What she offers that is unique is that she's an all around player. She can pass and play back row and she can effectively do things in the front row," Rose said.

McClendon became the fifth member in program history to record 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs against Iowa on Oct. 26.

"[It's] the best thing I've accomplished in my 21 years of life. It's an honor to be able to say I've done that," McClendon said. "It makes me feel special, but I know at the same time I have a lot more work to do."

Deja will be vital for the Nittany Lions this weekend, as she is every weekend, as Penn State takes on Purdue and Indiana in back-to-back matches.

"We always need what she can give us and she always gives us 100 percent," Grant said.

Penn State will face No. 14 Purdue on its home court on Friday at 7:00 pm. The team is 7-5 in the Big Ten and beat No. 16 Wisconsin in five sets last weekend. Junior setter/outside hitter Val Nichol had a double triple against Wisconsin, tallying 15 kills, 34 sets, and 15 digs.

Rose noted that although one may think that the team would feel more comfortable and less pressured playing at home, that won't mean anything if the team is not focused and ready to play.

"Purdue just beat Nebraska in front of 8,000 people. They're not going to be rattled about coming here and playing us," Rose said.

McClendon said the team is going to work on defense before the match against Purdue this weekend.

"We didn't block so hot last time we played them. Digging-wise, they hit a lot of balls off of hands last time that we weren't prepared to dig," McClendon said. "Those should be easy balls that we can get to, especially for myself playing middle back. To be prepared for that will help us a lot."

The Lions will kick things off against Indiana on Saturday night in Rec Hall at 7:00. While Indiana is 1-11 in the Big Ten, the team beat Michigan State, the only loss on Penn State's conference schedule. Morgan Leach, a junior right side hitter for the Hoosiers, is leading the team with 235 kills this season. Penn State's leader in kills, Ariel Scott, has 213.

Although the Hoosiers have only defeated one Big Ten team, they are capable of putting up a fight against the Lions.

"There are five or six teams in the conference that on any given night can beat everybody else. But, I also think the remaining five teams in the conference, if you don't play well, you're going to lose to them. [The remaining five teams] are going five-game matches with people, and us included," Rose said. "The level of play is up, the athleticism of every team has some players that are exceptional at what they do, and you need to not only defend what the other team does, you have to play well enough to control the ball to try and place some of your will on them."

McClendon has set a few goals for herself this weekend, from listening to her coaches to serving well. She said "serving is not her specialty," but if she can serve and hit away from the libero, the team will be more successful.

"If I can do what [the coaches] tell me, and if I can follow the scouting report, if I can hit the shots that I'm supposed to be hitting, and I can dig the balls I'm supposed to be digging, and do what they're actually telling me to do, I think we'll be really good and we'll be able to handle them," McClendon said.

Before each match this weekend, McClendon and sophomore outside hitter Megan Courtney will do their pregame ritual, as they always do, for good luck.

"Megan and I are always the last one out of the locker room before the game starts, and we always have a little saying. It's a secret. We do it before every game," McClendon said.