By Anita Nham, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - "If I could tell my seventh grade self that I was going to go to Penn State, I would have said I was joking," junior Ali Frantti said.
Frantti wrote an email to head coach Russ Rose when she was in seventh grade because she watched Penn State volleyball all her life and it was her dream to become a Nittany Lion. Though coach Rose never actually saw the email, her wish to come to Penn State eventually came true.
The Spring Grove, Illinois native graduated high school early, practiced hard and made her way into the Blue and White starting lineup her freshman year. Her rookie season was one she will also never forget.
She helped Penn State win the 2014 National Championship, was named the AVCA DI National Freshman of the Year and the AVCA All-Northeast Region Freshman of the Year, earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors three times, and led the team with 3.20 kills per set on .310 hitting.
"Coming off of freshman year, I wasn't expecting any of that," Frantti said. "Winning National Freshman of the Year was a surreal moment for me. I take great honor in that and people recognize that because I know there were many, many candidates that could have won that, for sure. I definitely am very honored that I could be National Freshman of the Year in 2014."
However, when someone wins such a big title, there's always going to be some type of pressure from it afterwards, especially when you're a six-rotation player, someone that receives serves, makes passes and leads the offense.
"Being a six rotation player, you always have to be focused and queued in on players and servers," Frantti said. "As an outside hitter, especially, we do a two-passer still. A majority of the balls are going to be served to me, so for every play, I'm doing something. It's always crucial to stay focus and have a good mindset the whole time."
There were high expectations for Frantti for her sophomore year. She was aware of that and setup goals for herself, but when she wasn't doing as well as she was in her first year, the stress got to her. At the end of the season, but she tied for third on the team with 2.63 kills per set, totaling 303 kills for the year, and finished fourth on the team with 1.83 digs per set.
"Winning National Freshman of the Year kind of leaves an expectation for you to maintain," Frantti said. "I wouldn't say all the eyes are on you, but it's an expectation to carry a great performance all the time. I think sophomore year, I definitely felt the pressure because that wasn't the best year I wanted to have. It was kind of a struggle, but I found some good in it."
During the times she was struggling on the court, Frantti used her faith to carry herself through the good and bad days and put perspective into her life.
"My faith played a huge role in my development as a person," Frantti said. "It's easy to get caught up with school and sports but without my faith, I would feel empty inside."
This season, there were a variety of questions about whether or not Frantti would play like her freshman year-self or her sophomore year-self, but in actuality, she's neither - she's a new Ali Frantti on the court. Frantti realized that there are only a number of matches left in her collegiate career, so she needs to make the most of all of them.
"This year, I have been making a conscious effort to get away from [the pressure]," Frantti said. "I keep it simple now and I don't really think too much of things. Honestly, I just got back to having fun, and that's the most important thing - that's why I play volleyball. That's what I learned last year and coming to this year, it's been a grind, but I enjoy every day. I've definitely grown a lot since last year."
Coming into the season with a younger team, there were a lot of question marks about how Penn State would perform, especially in the early part of the season. However, the Nittany Lions' chemistry and volleyball IQ has grown so much that they've won 11-straight matches. This wouldn't have been accomplished without veteran Frantti.
In a critical matchup against then-No. 18 Michigan State, Frantti led the offense for the first time all season, recording 11 kills on a .391 hitting clip, while also posting a team-high six digs. She also recorded a season-high 13 kills in the match in the win against top-ranked Minnesota the following week.
"Ali did phenomenal in that match against Michigan," junior Haleigh Washington said. "She had a lot of veteran plays, she's seeing the court very well and she was hitting shots that were very mature for her game that only an experienced player would think to hit. High, deep, in the corners. She was tipping really well and her attack in the back row was awesome.
Washington has been by Frantti's side throughout their entire time at Penn State, whether that be teammates on the court or roommates off the court. Either way, Washington has certainly seen Frantti grow in the past three years.
"Frantti has improved because she's a ranged hitter," Washington said. "Our freshmen year, she would hit a lot of 4-to-4 and a lot across, so that was her go-to shot. It was hitting that deep, almost to the libero, but now she has a deep corner shot, a down-the-line shot and others. Her serve is more versatile, her block has improved. She's become a better all-around player and her passing since freshmen year has made her one of our primary passers in our offense. She's a key part of why we are as successful as we can be and are."
Though Frantti has certainly gained experience in her communication skills, leadership abilities and volleyball IQ, she still hopes to learn more this season.
"In all aspects of the game, I definitely want to improve," Frantti said. "I feel like I'm getting my hitting back, which is great. I have a great connection with the setter, junior Abby Detering, right now. I think it's being physically aggressive through the whole season. I just want to maintain that level. It's a long season and you have to stay healthy, maintain physicality and be strong every game."
This junior outside hitter loves Mexican food, burgers, relaxing and Penn State volleyball. Even with some struggles and challenges in her career, Frantti's using that experience to improve her game and help her teammates. And she wouldn't want to be anywhere else doing it."To know that I'm here now, and to be part of this legacy and tradition, it's such a humbling experience. Girls dream about coming here, and I am so privileged to be part of this. I don't take it for granted at all. The opportunities that I am given to represent this great school, it's a huge honor. I couldn't picture myself going somewhere else...It's crazy how dreams work and if you put in the hard work, anything is possible. It's like a dream come true to be here."