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Second Half of Conference Play Kicks Off in Michigan

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By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- This week marks the middle of the Big Ten season for the Penn State women's volleyball team, meaning the Nittany Lions have faced each conference team once this season, with the exception of Nebraska.

9397528.jpegSophomore outside hitter Megan Courtney noted "things are going to change" at this point in the season because every team has played each other, so the teams will know what to expect beyond film and the scouting report. Penn State has seen the tendencies of each Big Ten team and has seen what worked and what did not work for their opponents.

"When you are on the back end of the Big Ten, the best teams that win are the ones that are most prepared and the ones that have the most fight. Whoever wants it more is really going to win it," Courtney said.

Head coach Russ Rose said at the midpoint in the season, some teams get better and healthier, and others get "dinged up". The Nittany Lions have three or four players that are not playing at 100 percent because of injuries, which changes how the team prepares and plays.

"I tell people, 'It's not a sprint. The Big Ten season is a marathon.' because you've got players that are hurt, you have kids that are bummed out that they're not playing, you have issues with their parents, you have so many factors that come in to play," Rose said. "We need some people to get healthy to be at our best."

Senior outside hitter Deja McClendon said the team has improved a lot since the beginning of the Big Ten season. She noted that the Lions have improved in five-game matches, in defense, and in blocking.

Blocking will be especially important this weekend. The Nittany Lions will take on No. 17 Michigan on Friday in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines are 18-2 and 4-6 in the Big Ten. Although they have a losing record in the conference, the team was at the same record that they were last year, and made it to the Final Four. Head coach Russ Rose said the team caught fire and played well in the second half of the Big Ten season last year.

Michigan fell to No. 21 Purdue last weekend, but senior outside hitter Molly Toon led the squad with 17 kills. Senior middle blocker Jennifer Cross is one block assist away from breaking Michigan's all-time block assist record. Senior outside hitter Deja McClendon noted that Michigan has a lot of dominate slide hitters and blocking them is a main focus for the Lions.

"[Michgan] has girls who are really fiery and playing at their place is tough, so were going to have to be able to play in a small gym with lots of fans screaming against us," McClendon said.

On Saturday, Penn State will head to Michigan State to take on the Spartans for the second time this season.  The Spartans have been on Penn State's mind since the setback earlier this season.

"We've been thinking about it every game we've played. They clearly think that they can beat us because they've done it before," McClendon said. "If we want to be a dominant team, if we want to be relevant and if we want to win the Big Ten, which is always one of our goals, we need to perform in that game."

Michigan State is 14-7 and 6-3 in the Big Ten. While the team is currently on a four-game losing streak, the Spartan squad continues to perform well statistically. Senior outside hitter Lauren Wicinski had 16 kills, eight digs, two blocks, and two aces against Indiana. Senior middle blocker Alexis Mathews had 11 kills and six blocks.

Again, blocking will be vital for the Penn State team. Tough serving will be important for this match as well, as the Spartans average less than one service reception error per set.

"Everybody [in the Big Ten] has the potential to stress the other teams out with good play and quality support by their fans," Rose said. "I'm happy that after losing the first match of the first round (to Michigan State), that we were able to have success the rest of the way. But that doesn't transfer to meaning you'll have success the second round."

Rose said it has been an incredible and competitive year in the Big Ten. He added that the conference is very unforgiving. If a team doesn't play well, there's a high probability of failure. If a team does play well, there's still a possibility of failure. Every team is capable of beating any team.

Lions Dominate Hawkeyes in a 3-0 Sweep

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By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Senior Deja McClendon became the fifth player in program history to have 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs this weekend after tallying eight kills and 10 digs in the Lions' 3-0 win against Iowa. McClendon now has a total of 1,004 career digs and 1,431 career kills.

9387397.jpegHead coach Russ Rose noted that McClendon's passing was near perfect in the match against Iowa, receiving almost every one of Iowa's serves. She matched a season-high mark of four blocks against the Hawkeyes, as well. Rose said this accomplishment is a representation of how much McClendon has improved, especially on defense.

"I'm thrilled for Deja because I think she has given a lot of her game to make the team better," Rose said. "When she came in as a freshman, she was a pure hitter and wasn't asked to do much else. And now she's asked to be our best passer, blocker and defender."

Junior setter Micha Hancock also matched a season-high mark of eight aces against Iowa. Hancock's 36 assists and senior Ariel Scott's 11 kills led the Nittany Lion offense to a .458 hitting clip.

"When [Hancock's] serve is on, it gives us the best chance for us to play at the highest level," Rose said. "That's for all of the players. You need to serve well to pressure the other team. If you don't serve well and they have the ability to side out on you, that's when we can get into trouble."

Rose made many substitutions throughout the match, giving the younger players a chance to show that their hard work in practice is paying off. He said that the players on the bench work very hard in practice and he wanted to give them an opportunity to get on the court in front of their family and friends.

The final point of the match was a kill from freshman middle blocker Kelly Robertson.

"[The final ball of the match] didn't go down the way I was hoping, but it did go down and I'm happy it did. I'm glad I had the opportunity to do it," Robertson said.

Staying prepared to go in the game throughout the entire match can be difficult for the players on the bench. Robertson said the best way to stay prepared to go in is to mentally stay in the game. Staying in the game mentally helped Robertson made the transition into the game.

In the first frame, the Lions had an 8-1 run and later had a 13-5 run. Ariel Scott tallied three kills out of three attempts, giving her a 1.000 hitting percentage. At the end of the set, after an Iowa service error, senior Maggie Harding served the set point. Senior Katie Slay fired a kill to close out the set at 25-8.

The second set was not much different for the Hawkeyes. Penn State had an 11-point run in the middle of the set at 15-4. Iowa tried to fight back, but could not catch the No. 2-ranked Nittany Lions. Slay ended the set again, this time with a solo block.

In the final frame, Penn State had an 11-4 lead after three kills from Scott. A kill from the Hawkeyes gave them the side-out, but the ball quickly returned to Penn State's side after another kill from Scott. Iowa had a 3-1 run, coming within six points of the Nittany Lions, but Penn State went on a 10-2 run to close out the match at 25-11.

"It was a great crowd, and we're really appreciative of the band and the student section," Rose said. "We only had seven mistakes in three games, so I think that's a good night for us as far as controlling the ball and doing the things that we need to do. I'm pleased with the effort tonight."

In addition to her 11 kills, Scott had one dig and three blocks. Senior Katie slay led the defense with six blocks. Junior Nia Grant tallied six kills with a team-high .625 hitting percentage. She also had five blocks.

The Nittany Lions will head on the road this weekend to face Michigan and Michigan State for the second time this season. 

Scott Leads Nittany Lions in More Than One Way

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By Chelsea Howard, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - When Ariel Scott visited Penn State for the first time as a sophomore in high school, she was blown away by how welcoming the team was and knew how much she could learn from this program.

9370102.jpegSix years later, the senior has proven how much she has learned under head coach Russ Rose after being recognized as first team All-American last year. In August, she was nominated as a candidate for the 2013 Senior CLASS Award based on her involvement with community outreach, her performances in the classroom and during competition.

"She's a hard-working individual who cares. She's a big, strong athlete that at times is the most dominant player on the floor," Rose said. "The expectations of her teammates offer her to play at a high level. The team can't play at its highest level without her playing at a high level."

Scott's leadership role is one of the aspects that the Nittany Lions rely on to be able to perform as one unit. Working her way into her senior year, the New Jersey native knows she is expected to help guide her teammates.

"The younger girls look up to the seniors," Scott said. "You're expected to be more of a leader, but it's pretty much the same girls and the same coaching style so it hasn't been too hard to adjust. Your senior year is always bittersweet. You want to go out with a bang, but you also don't want the season to end."

With three years of experience and 19 matches this season already behind her, Scott has set an example of how to handle the pressures of competing in one of the most competitive volleyball conferences.

"You slowly get used to the pressure from your freshman year," Scott said. "Every game is going to be a great game. You know every team is going to come out wanting to win and wanting to beat you. It's kind of a good pressure because you know you have to play your best, but at the same time you know you can do it."

Although Scott may not be the most vocal player on the court, her ability to lead by example sets her up to guide the underclassmen in a unique way. Scott's leadership has motivated her teammates, including sophomore Megan Courtney.

"She is definitely a leader by how she plays," Courtney said. "Her stats are incredible and she's a great player to play with. It's awesome to be able to play with someone that has that much talent. Seeing her play at the highest level she possibly can is great for me because I can strive to play even better to help her in any way."

Scott has led the team in kills in eight matches and has reached double digits in nine matches. Against Ohio State on Wednesday, Scott had nine kills and five blocks, adding to her impressive stats while leading the team with 178 kills.

Knowing she has reached this high level of play, Scott doesn't put too much thought into whether or not she's leading the team in kills. Instead she focuses on what the team needs from her.

"I try not to think about it," Scott said. "One of my bigger roles is scoring, but if someone else leads the team in number of kills that's awesome - we just try to mix it up."

During Scott's freshman year, she was a part of the 2010 national championship team and remembers that feeling of winning a match at that level. Keeping that in the back of her mind helps motivate the right side hitter, who started playing volleyball in ninth grade.

"Everyday we come in to work towards winning a national championship," Scott said. "I got to experience that my freshman year and want to go out on that note."

Contributing to the strong history that Penn State volleyball has, Scott sees the most rewarding aspect of being a part of this program is the long tradition of excellence that Rose has worked to not only establish, but also maintain throughout the 35 seasons he's led the Nittany Lions.

"Our coach has been here and basically built this program," Scott said. "He has so many alumni that honor what he has done. It's a great feeling to be a part of for the past four years."

After defeating Ohio State on Wednesday night and looking ahead to playing Iowa on Saturday, Scott knows how important it will be to continue building off of the momentum they have created for themselves.

"We have to close out playing the Big Ten," Scott said. "We have to finish strong. If you want to win the Big Ten championship and going into the NCAA championship, you have to finish strong to be able to get a good seed for the team."

Lions Roll Past Buckeyes

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By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Fueled by a strong first set, the Penn State women's volleyball team powered past No. 24 Ohio State in a three-set sweep on Wednesday night in Rec Hall.

9365618.jpegThe team attacked at a .333 clip in the opening set and carried that momentum for the rest of the match en route to their eighth-straight victory in Big Ten play.

The Nittany Lions started the match with a 7-1 run in the first set. Three consecutive blocks from senior middle hitter Katie Slay and senior right side hitter Ariel Scott, followed by an ace by junior setter Micha Hancock fired up the Lions.

"[In] the first game, we blocked really well. I think that kind of set the ball rolling as far as what [the team] wanted to do offensively because we blocked so many balls at the beginning," head coach Russ Rose said.

Ohio State tried to power up its offense, but only scored five more points before calling a timeout at 16-6. After the timeout, the Buckeyes were only able to score three more points before the Lions closed out the set. The final four points included an ace and a kill from Hancock. Penn State held the Buckeyes to a negative hitting percentage, -0.133, in the first set.

Hancock led the team defensively with 11 digs and three blocks. She also tallied three aces, 23 assists and five kills with a .667 hitting percentage.

"Micha stepped up big time getting those digs and I think that shows how much hard work she's been putting in the past couple days," senior Deja McClendon said.

In the second set, Penn State's offense was still on point at a .327 hitting percentage. McClendon and senior right side hitter Ariel Scott led the team offensively in this frame, with three kills each.

"It was a match where the other team was a little out of synch. You want to keep the ball in play and get as many points as you possibly can and get out of there before they click into gear and start playing a little better," Rose said.

In the final set, the Lions trailed 2-1, but came back strong with eight consecutive points. The Buckeyes answered with five points, making the score 16-10. Three consecutive kills from Slay, Scott and redshirt sophomore outside hitter Aiyana Whitney brought the score to 19-10.  The Nittany Lions finished the match at a score of 25-16 after successive kills from Hancock.

Ohio State finished the match at a -0.030 hitting percentage. The last time Penn State held a Big Ten team to a negative hitting percentage was in November of 2008 against Indiana, holding them to a -.020 hitting percentage.

"I've seen films of Ohio State where they played much better than they played tonight," Rose said. "I thought we controlled the ball from the end line. And we didn't get aced."

After matches this season, such as Illinois, where the team had 16 service errors and only three aces, Rose was pleased that the team collectively had only three service errors against Ohio State. The team tallied six aces against the Buckeyes. McClendon contributed to this with a season-high two aces. The last time McClendon had two aces in a match was against Oregon in the NCAA Semifinals last year, when she tallied three aces.

McClendon led the No. 2-ranked team offensively, with 10 kills and a .500 hitting percentage. She also tallied two blocks. Rose said McClendon did well passing and hitting, but McClendon herself noted that she and the team have some things to work on before Saturday's match against Iowa.

"I'm going to get in the gym and work on my serve. We kept our serves in, but we have to serve a lot tougher if we want to win big matches," McClendon said. "As a team, we have to keep working on that defense."

Penn State is undefeated in its last 15 matches against Iowa. Although the Hawkeyes haven't had much success against the Nittany Lions, Rose knows his team needs to improve before Saturday.

"I think the girls know we didn't play as well as we could, but we're happy with the results and we know we'll have to play better on Saturday against Iowa," Rose said.  "They went four and five games with some of the top teams in the conference. So I know they have some players that are very talented and we will have to be ready to play."

Catch the Nittany Lions take on the Iowa Hawkeyes in Rec Hall on Saturday at 7 p.m. 

Grant's Production Boosts Lions in Big Ten Play

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By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.-- Thanks to a career-high tying performance on Sunday at Northwestern, junior middle hitter Nia Grant played an instrumental role in helping the Nittany Lion women's volleyball team tally its seventh-straight victory in conference play.

9360563.jpegGrant registered 11 kills on .769 hitting and helped the Lions sweep Northwestern.  Heading into Wednesday's home match against Ohio State, Penn State is looking for more of the same out of the Ohio native.

"Nia had a great weekend offensively," head coach Russ Rose said. "She came in against Illinois and really gave us a needed spark and continued it the next day and played terrific offensively against Northwestern."

One of Grant's best assets is her attitude on the court.

"She's really fun to play with when she's excited, she's all smiles and it's hard not to smile when you see her getting so enthusiastic. It's awesome to play with her," sophomore outside hitter Megan Courtney said.

An aspect of Grant's game that has improved is her serving. She has had 15 aces this season, the second highest on the team.

"She's surprisingly been really good at the service line. She's surprising a lot of the teams with her dropper serve that gets aces, so that a really good thing for our team," junior setter Micha Hancock said.

Grant said she'd like to work on her blocking. She has had a total of 34 blocks this season, but showed improvement by tallying seven blocks this weekend. She said the team still has "kinks" that it needs to work out. These kinks entail working on being consistent and staying high energy. Hancock added that the team needs to improve its serving before the matches this week.

"The team can't play at its highest level without Nia and [Ariel] Scott playing at a high level," Rose said.

On Wednesday, the Nittany Lions will take on the Ohio State Buckeyes (14-6). Penn State has won the last 12 consecutive matches against Ohio State. On Saturday, Penn State will match up against Iowa (10-10).

Blocking will be crucial for Penn State in this week's Big Ten matches, especially Ohio State. Ohio State's outside hitter Kaitlyn Leary, the leading scorer in the conference, tallied her 1,000th career kill last weekend. She averages 4.96 kills per set, while Penn State's biggest hitter, Ariel Scott, only averages 3.19 kills per set. Grant, Katie Slay and the right side blockers will need a strong block on the senior Buckeye.

"[Leary] is very good. Without a block, it's doubtful we'll dig the ball. She's got a really fast arm and she's a great player," Hancock said. "We're going to just focus on getting in front of her and making her try to compete with a block in front of her."

In addition to blocking, defense will be very important for the Nittany Lions. Because of the speed of Ohio State's offense, the Nittany Lion defense will need to get the balls up if the block cannot get there in time.

"Like all the Big Ten teams, [Ohio State] is really good," Courtney said. "We just have to focus on controlling what we can control because Ohio State is a great team and they have some great hitters. Stopping [the hitters] is going to be a key factor for us."

No. 24 Ohio State is 2-6 in the Big Ten and is currently on a four-game losing streak, but the Buckeyes will enter Wednesday's match ready to challenge for every point.

"If [Ohio State] controls the ball, they have some terrific attackers," Rose said. "[Taylor] Sandbothe is arguably the quickest middle in the conference as a freshman and has really made a great impact on their team. We need to control the ball. If we control the ball, we have the ability to attack from a variety of areas along the net."

Catch the Nittany Lions take on the Buckeyes on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Rec Hall. The match will be streamed on ESPN3.

On Saturday, the Nittany Lions will meet Iowa at 7 p.m. in Rec Hall. This match will be streamed as a Big Ten Network- Student U.  The Hawkeyes beat Indiana in five sets last weekend, earning their first Big Ten win this season. They are 1-7 in the conference. 

Iowa junior outside hitter Alex Lovell had 20 kills against Indiana and has been averaging 3.73 kills per set, so a tough block on her will be vital for the Nittany Lions.

"When we control the ball, we're scary. It's just about us coming in and being consistent everyday. That's where it lies. It's in our hands and we know that. It's how hard we're going to compete with other teams," Hancock said.

Wednesday's game against Ohio State is the Dig Pink game, benefitting the Side-Out Foundation, an organization that raises money for breast cancer through volleyball teams across the nations. Fans are encouraged to wear pink to the match and donate.

"We have a long way to go, but we've come far and we can still progress in the upward direction. We've had a lot of rollercoaster rides so far this season," Courtney said. "Hopefully we can keep it consistent and steady in the upward direction. All we can do is improve, so that's what our goal is."

Gonzalez's Journey Into the Libero Position

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By Chelsea Howard, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Following the lead of her two older sisters and using the guidance from her parents, who are both volleyball coaches, Dominique Gonzalez knew at only four years old that she would carry on the tradition within in her family of playing volleyball on a competitive level.

9341847.jpeg"I was kind of born into it," Gonzalez said. "I was always in the gym and I became almost like a gym rat. My mom and my dad had a really big impact on me - my mom especially since she coached me a lot when I was young. She started the foundation of the athlete I've become today of working hard and training me from the basics."

Originally from San Antonio, Texas, the junior has always been around some of the best competition in the country and wanted that feeling to continue after graduating high school.  Setting her goals high and working until she reached them, Gonzalez found herself in the position to capitalize on a dream.

"Volleyball is so huge in Texas with a lot of competition, but my dream was to come up and play here at Penn State," Gonzalez said. "That's what I really wanted to do so I worked hard for that. It's a great atmosphere here with the fans and everything. I just love everything about it."

After meeting the coaching staff and the team, seeing Penn State's campus, and looking at how balanced the athletics and academics are, Gonzalez knew she wanted to do whatever it would take to be a part of a volleyball program with a rich history under head coach Russ Rose.

"Playing for a coach that's legendary and having coaches that want to draw everything out of you and make you be the best player you can be has been the most rewarding part of playing here," Gonzalez said. "You have teammates that are there to support you and you're part of a university that's really supportive of the volleyball program as well." 

Gonzalez knew that during her freshman year she would have to fight for any time to play on the court and fight even harder to find her way into the starting lineup. Gaining experience as a freshman, she played in 29 matches and started in six as a serving and defensive specialist. Her sophomore year, Gonzalez started in all 36 matches as the libero and led the team with 457 digs for the whole season.

With 16 matches behind the Nittany Lions, Gonzalez leads the team with 189 digs so far this season.
Since she is in the libero position, her communication plays a huge role in the success of the team.

"Being libero, you have to man the back row and run things making sure that everyone knows what's going on," Gonzalez said. "You have to be the stable player when it comes to the back row because you have people that play all around so their main focus isn't the back row like it is mine. I have to make sure I know what's going on and set up the offense for Micha [Hancock] giving her a dig so she can do what she needs to do with the ball."

Playing in this position means the libero is usually on the court for five out of the six rotations and has to use strong leadership to make sure everyone is on the same page. Along with being the libero comes pressure of guiding the team. Gonzalez has learned to focus on what she can control rather than worry about the uncontrollable factors.

"I've tried to learn a lot from the people that were here in the past playing in the same position," Gonzalez said. "I try to focus more on what's going on around me and zone out the pressure. I just focus on winning the point and what the team needs. When you focus on things that are external rather than internal, that helps relieves some of the pressure."

Having the ability to control pressures of competing on a team that has won national championships has proven to be a huge skill for Gonzalez. After playing the same sport for about 16 years, the junior uses her competitive edge to stay motivated and to push the team to reach their end of the season goals.

"I really like to win and I like to be successful," Gonzalez said. "I think the team is working to be on same page. I think the want to win and the want to win a national championship with this team is what keeps us motivated because the season can be long and taxing. The focus on wanting to win the Big Ten and national championships is what keeps us going."

In long matches that go to five sets, Gonzalez finds herself using the crowd as motivation and takes advantage of their support and energy during home matches to stay focused on what the Nittany Lions have set out to accomplish.

"It's great when there's a long rally and you win the point and the fans are behind you cheering you on," Gonzalez said. "It gives you the energy and takes away the energy from the other team which helps us out a lot. When they are cheering you on, you know you can accomplish almost anything."

While there is a lot of conference play still to come before the postseason matches begin, Gonzalez is looking forward to seeing the team come together even more and continue to work better as a whole unit to prepare for the championship matches.

"I'm looking forward to us getting better and showing what we've accomplished over the past couple of weeks and showing what we're going to change as a team to hold each other accountable," Gonzalez said. "I'm excited to go out there and prove to ourselves that we can be a better team."

Nittany Lions Hope for More Big Ten Success on the Road

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By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Riding a five-match winning streak, the No. 4-ranked Penn State women's volleyball team heads on the road this weekend with a pair of Big Ten matches at Illinois and Northwestern.

9335913.jpegPenn State's execution on both sides of the ball has been a key to the Lions' success during the last two weeks. Junior outside hitter Nia Grant said the defense, specifically the back row, has improved tremendously throughout the season.

"[Our back row] covers a lot of people in the front row. If our block isn't good, you can always count on the defense to be there and back us up," Grant said.

The offense has also been very successful, with consistent production from what head coach Russ Rose calls the "big three"; senior middle hitter Katie Slay, senior right side hitter Ariel Scott, and senior outside hitter Deja McClendon. This season, Slay has had 129 kills, Scott has had 153, and McClendon has had 139.

"[Katie] Slay has been very consistent. Obviously Arielle [Scott] has been very consistent. And I think those two together offensively are fantastic," Grant said.

When the team talks off the court, they set goals and make sure that each player has the same goals in mind. Slay said talking with teammates about goal setting and wanting to work to be their best has resulted in the team's success. She said it is all about getting your mentality focused on the right things so that when they step on the court, they are ready to play.

The team recognizes that despite the current success, there are still many matches ahead and that there are always aspects of the game that need improvement.

"We're definitely excited about [the wins], but we still have a lot of good teams to play and we're not going to get complacent," Scott said.

A part of the game that Coach Rose noted the Lions need to improve on is ball-managing skills and cutting down on errors. The team has a total of 403 errors this season, but has fewer errors than their opponents in every aspect of the game except for serving.

"What we haven't been doing well is managing the ball in some situations. It just seems that everybody thinks that it's okay to make two or three errors in a game," Rose said. "When you add up four or five people making two or three errors, you're giving away an awful lot of points."

Having good chemistry between the players in the lineup is imperative for the Nittany Lions. Rose has been changing around the lineup each match, in hopes of finding a group that clicks and wants to play.

"I am going to keep changing around the lineup until I think something clicks a little better. If you practice four days a week and you play twice a week, you have twice as many opportunities to demonstrate that you should be playing [on the court]," said Rose.

This weekend, the Nittany Lions will head to Illinois to face the Fighting Illini on their home court on Friday. After that, the team will head to Chicago for a match against Northwestern on Sunday afternoon. Having a Sunday match is unusual for Penn State because Rose likes to give the players off on Sundays.

"We had off on Sunday and Monday of this week because this week is a tough week. We have a TV game, so we play Friday and Sunday," said Rose. "Sunday is traditionally our day off, so we needed to have to a day so we had back-to-back days off. Hopefully the players will have a little more energy and their bodies will be a little more rested."

Before the matches this weekend, Scott wants to continue to work on her blocking. Grant said as a team, blocking would be crucial because both teams are very talented at the net.

Illinois redshirt sophomore outside hitter Jocelynn Birks has tallied 241 kills this season. Northwestern senior outside hitter Stephanie Holthus has had 279 kills this season. Blocking these two players will be very important.

Slay said both Illinois (7-9) and Northwestern (11-7) are good teams that do a lot of things well. She said it's important to make sure that the Nittany Lions take care of their side of the court.

Rose also noted that both teams are talented. Illinois split last weekend on the road, beating Indiana and falling to Purdue. They are 3-3 in the Big Ten.

The atmosphere at Illinois may be one of the toughest challenges that the Nittany Lions will face this weekend. Scott said the Illini student section is great and their gym is smaller, so the fans will be on top of them and very loud.

The Nittany Lions will kick the weekend off in Illinois on Friday at 7:30 p.m. Catch the game on Big Ten Network.

"It's hard to play, but it's also really fun, too," Scott said.

Northwestern won both of their matches against Indiana and Purdue on the road last weekend and are also 3-3 in the Big Ten. Penn State will face the Wildcats on Sunday at 1 p.m. 

Slay Embraces Leading as a Team Player

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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.

9318114.jpegSlay 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."

Scott Fuels Lions to Fourth Consecutive Conference Match

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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.

9318061.jpegPenn 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. 

Nittany Lions Prepare for More Competition in Big Ten

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By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
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.

9311773.jpegThe 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).