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Heidi Thelen's Home Away from Home

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11458368.jpegBy Anita Nham, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Sophomore middle blocker Heidi Thelen grew up in a big family that consisted of her parents, two brothers, Jack and Nick, and two sisters, Hannah and Grace, in Edgewood, Ky. The seven of them have an incomparable bond and connection.

But by being nearly 450 miles away from home, maintaining that family relationship can be tough.

However, Thelen realized that the transition was not deterrent. She was simply moving from one big family to the Penn State family.

"My family is really close, we tell each other everything," said Thelen. "Coming from a big family, and then coming here, it's also like another big family. There are 17 girls on the team. There's so many coaches, boosters, fans; it's like coming from a big family to an even bigger family. It was really nice because there wasn't much of a change. I came from a big loving family to another big loving family."

Thelen was a four-year letter winner at her high school, Notre Dame Academy, and was a two-time Best Offensive Player selection. During her senior year, Thelen knew that she had to find a school that had a family component to its volleyball program.

"I always knew that I wanted to come to a competitive and good school," said Thelen. "Penn State's atmosphere is awesome. The coaches here are incredible; they know what they're doing...Also, when I came to visit, all the girls were so welcoming. I've known all the girls. I've been going to camps with the girls in my grade since sophomore year of high school, so I knew them all really well, and fell in love with this school, the coaches and players."

Since attending Penn State, Thelen's parents and siblings continuously supported her and in her volleyball career.

"[My family] has been up a lot," said Thelen. "They weren't here that many times last year because my brother was a senior in college and played basketball, so they went to more of his games, but this year, they've come to a lot. Actually, all of my siblings have been on campus now, which is awesome, and they love it [here], too. They come out and support me as much as I can. I'm from Kentucky, so each away game is not far from where I love, so they get to make it to those, as well."

During her first season in 2014, Thelen played in six matches, including in the NCAA Tournament. This season, Thelen has made an appearance in seven matches so far, recorded a career-high of nine blocks, but is constantly striving to improve.

"My skills have developed more [from last season]," said Thelen. "I feel more confident in my game. I feel more open to talk and be loud and aggressive at practices and at the net. I'm not afraid to say stuff to other players, and they're not afraid to say stuff to me. I've grown in that aspect, and I try to be more of a leader, like the older girls on team, so in the future, when they're gone, I can take their role."

Head coach Russ Rose believes that she will make a bigger impact on the volleyball team in the future.

"She's a wonderful team player," said coach Rose. "She has a really good frame for the game. She didn't play much last year, and has played more this year, and I think will play more into the future as we continue to increase her strength, endurance and awareness of what is going on. Heidi is a wonderful young person with good skills."

Aside from volleyball being Thelen's favorite part about Penn State, she loves the academics, too.

"It's really challenging. I'm a biobehavioral health major, so I love it, and I like that [Penn State] is challenging academically and athletically. The school is beautiful. I met my best friends here, and I know we will be best friends for life's just a really comfortable home feeling here."

Even with the volleyball, Thelen is preparing for her life after graduation.

"It would be awesome to play overseas, but if that's not what's supposed to happen, then I would love to go to Pa. school to be a physician's assistant. I'm working hours now, so I can enter the program," Thelen said.

On Thursday nights, Thelen enjoys watching Grey's Anatomy and Scandal with her roommates, but when there are practices and matches, she's focused on bettering the team.

"I hope to improve on my leadership abilities, and continuing to be a good teammate and supporting my team because it isn't about individuals, it's about the whole team. It's about Penn State volleyball, and helping out the team in any way that I can," said Thelen.

Nittany Lions Hit the Road for Four Matches in Conference Play

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11456447.jpegBy Samantha DelRosso, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Playing on the road is never easy. Entering a packed gym with fans rooting for your opponent can be tough. But silencing the crowd makes it all worth it.

The Penn State Women's volleyball team is on the road for the next four matches. The Nittany Lions (21-2, 10-2 Big Ten) face Maryland on Thursday and Rutgers on Friday. The team is playing two matches in less than 24 hours, with travel included.

This weekend, the team is traveling by bus. This means a few hours of travel time to focus on the matches ahead. For weekends like this, the toughness, focus and mental strength of the players are crucial.

"The travel situation this weekend is very unique, so it's definitely going to be about staying rested, getting in and watching a lot of film and staying as prepared as possible for the atmosphere that the other team can bring," redshirt senior Aiyana Whitney said.

Whitney said playing in other venues makes her appreciate playing at home.

"The road's always tough. You're dealing with travel and that can be tough. It's testing the body and it's testing how well you prepare," Whitney said. "It's awesome because when you do get back to Rec Hall, you appreciate it a lot more and you're a lot more fired up. It's tough to stay focused on the road and to play well in other gyms, but it's a really test to see where we are as a team right now and how far we've come."

A typical week for an away match looks something like this: First, practicing in South Gym of Rec Hall. Sophomore Haleigh Washington said nothing compares to the intensity of a practice in South Gym.

"[During practice in South Gym], we're always being pushed to work hard or we're being told that we have to go even harder," Washington said. "When you have that mentality and you come out in the game setting, nothing's quite as challenging as the mentality that you have to have in practice."

Next is film. Whitney said players would watch film any chance they get throughout the week, whether it's with a coach between classes or on their own.

The team typically leaves the night before the match. Once they arrive at the hotel, players will watch more film and get a good night's sleep before the match.

On the day of the match, the team wakes up early, practices, has a team meal and has a team meeting.

"[On game day], we have team film and break down what the other team is doing and [discuss] our game plan with coach," Whitney said. "Then we get ready, get ourselves pumped up and head over to the gym for the match."

Immediately after Thursday's match against Maryland, the Nittany Lions will head to Piscataway, N.J. This means the team will have to try and get some rest on the bus before the next match.

In addition the travel each Big Ten team faces, playing in another venue can also be challenging. Head coach Russ Rose said teams in the Big Ten Conference play their best in their own gyms.

"Over the course of the number of years we've been in the conference, how challenging it is in the Big Ten, just because all of the teams in the Big Ten are far more comfortable and aggressive at home than they are on the road," Rose said.

Both Whitney and Washington said playing on the road can be exciting, but the team has to prepare properly.

"You have to be tough. You're stepping in to other gyms and they're packing their gyms. Their teams are preparing extra hard because we are who we are, and Penn State is the team that brings in the crowd," Whitney said. "A lot of teams prepare super hard and bring their best game against us, so I think it's about staying sharp, staying rested and preparing extra hard."

"I really like playing away games because you get to be that team to silence the gym. I've always loved playing not on my home court because you can go and show other schools exactly what you're made of when you're not on your home turf," Washington said.

The first-ranked Nittany Lions look to continue their six-game win streak in Maryland on Thursday night at 8 p.m. The Terrapins are 2-10 in Big Ten play. The team will then head to Rutgers for a match on Friday at 7 p.m. The Scarlet Knights are 1-11 in the Big Ten. 

VIDEO: Women's Volleyball Update - Bryanna Weiskircher (11/4/15)

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - talks with redshirt freshman setter Bryanna Weiskircher in advance of Penn State's weekend trip to Maryland and Rutgers. The Nittany Lions begin a four-match road swing on Thursday at Maryland. Penn State has eight regular season matches to play.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

Whitney Leads Lions to Season Sweep of Ohio State

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11451213.jpegBy Anita Nham, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - For the opening point in the first set, redshirt senior Aiyana Whitney started the match against No. 11 Ohio State with a resilient kill. Her skills and dominance carried the Lions through the rest of the match to guide Penn State to a 3-1 victory against No. 11 Ohio State on Friday evening.

Whitney finished off the night with team-high of 13 kills, and a .550 hitting efficiency. She also led the team with four blocks.

"I thought Aiyana was exceptional tonight," said head coach Russ Rose.

The Nittany Lions had a smooth first and second set to easily cruise to a 2-0 lead. For the third set, Penn State came out with a 5-2 lead, most notably from three consecutive blocks, including solo stuffs from Ali Frantti and Whitney. Megan Courtney and Whitney also notched a double block.

But after Ohio State called a timeout, the Buckeyes quickly regrouped to close the gap. Penn State fell in the third set to Ohio State.

"Things just got a little crazy," said redshirt freshman Bryanna Weiskircher. "We were just trying to do a little more than we needed to, and I think all around, it was just a little rough. We got a little tense, and we figured, we had the game in the bag, but obviously, we didn't."

However, veteran player Whitney knew how to help her teammates with the pressure.

"[We thought about] controlling the ball on our side, and controlling what we're doing," said Whitney. "When they close the gap like that, sometimes people can get tense out of it, and that's how errors happen. We just try to stay loose, and control the ball, control what we're doing. Keep each other loose, so we can get a run."

Alongside Whitney, sophomore Haleigh Washington also notched 13 kills on .445 hitting percentage, four digs, two blocks and an ace.

"Haleigh was very strong offensively early in the match," said coach Rose.

Weiskircher led the team with 42 assists and two aces. Weiskircher recorded a career high of five kills, as well.

"I thought it was a good, intense match with a great conference opponent. It's always tough playing Ohio State," said Rose. "We started the week tied for second in the conference with them, so to be able to go through the week, and get a couple of victories, it's great for the kids. We didn't play great, but we did some things really well...It's a special win when you can beat the same team twice in the same week."

Penn State has eight more matches in the regular season. The Nittany Lions will be back on the road next weekend to take on Maryland and Rutgers.

"It's a good win. We have two more matches on the road next weekend, so it's a long conference season," said coach Rose.

Like Mother, Like Daughter

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11439735.jpegBy Anita Nham, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Senior Lara Caraway dreamed about playing Division I collegiate volleyball since she was a 6-year-old.

Her mother, Tami Caraway, played volleyball at the University of Nebraska Omaha, and later, coached volleyball. Lara would sit on the bench at all of her mother's practices during the club season. She learned how to keep track of passing stats before she could even write sentences. After following volleyball for so long, it was impossible for Lara to imagine a life without the sport.

Then, four years ago, Caraway's dream of playing DI volleyball finally came true.

"I've grown up playing volleyball and wanting to be a great volleyball player because my mom coached and played it. It's family," said Caraway. "She's my inspiration for volleyball. She's awesome."

Even though Caraway is miles from home, her mother constantly supports and encourages her. 

"[My mom] makes a lot of the home matches," said Caraway. "She usually goes to the Ohio State match because we live right in between. I think she went to every club tournament and my practices three days a week. She's been everything for me."

Volleyball was not the only thing that was inspired by her mother for Caraway to pursue. Outside of volleyball, she has a passion for sports, anything physically active, as well as, reading mysteries, like books written by Agatha Christie. Nevertheless, her favorite hobby in the world is photography.

"[I got into it] again from my mom," said Caraway. "She was a bit of a photographer when I was younger, and she always pushed arts and music, and I just really enjoy photography. I love taking pictures, and capturing things that people don't normally see."

When Caraway was applying for colleges to follow her dreams of playing collegiate volleyball, she always kept her eyes set on Penn State.

"The reason I picked Penn State was because I wanted to be a better player leaving the program than I was coming in, and I knew Penn State was the place for me," said Caraway. "People were intense, and they try their hardest every day, and that's something I want to be a part of. I want to be part of a place that got better, not expected the best, but worked for it."

Though the adjustment to Penn State's volleyball program wasn't difficult, it was a whole new world for Caraway in terms of courses. For high school, Caraway did not attend classes with other students; she was home schooled in the Mars Area School District in Mars, Pa., where she still played high school volleyball for the district and club volleyball, too.

"It was definitely a big difference," said Caraway. "I went to a classroom of just me to a classroom in my freshmen year of 600 people. It was different, but I liked it a lot. I like going, seeing and being in the big classrooms and learning like that, but it definitely took me a couple of months to get into it."

Since her four years at Penn State, Caraway has been a valuable asset for the team.

"She's a lot more confident [now]," said head coach Russ Rose. "She's always been a really good team player...She goes into matches, and she knows the expectations for her as she enters the game. I think she plays the game the way we need her to play it."

Caraway has also noticed some growth in herself, both on and off the court.

"I've grown in all sorts of ways," said Caraway. "On the court, I've definitely gotten a lot faster, picked up my skills a lot and grown as a person. Just playing for this program makes you really tough, makes you focus, definitely more mature, and it feels like it takes you from high school and gets you ready for the world."

In addition to volleyball, Caraway is part of the Student Athletic Advisory Board, is on the leadership team for Penn State Student Christian Athletes and does a lot of community service.

After graduation, Caraway hopes to work in strength in conditioning, especially within high school athletics.

"I want to try to help [athletes] make their goals of making it some place like Penn State or any place that they want to," said Caraway.

The adjustment to college was a little challenging for Caraway during her freshman year, but ever since coming to Penn State, she would not change a single thing about it.

"I love being here. I love the friends I've made, on and off the court. There are so many memories," said Caraway.

A Balanced Offense for a Successful Team

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11437513.jpegBy Samantha DelRosso, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The halfway point of the Big Ten season has arrived for the Penn State women's volleyball team. There are 10 matches remaining; five at home and five on the road. The long, collegiate volleyball season proves which teams have the necessary stamina and which do not.

The Nittany Lions head into the second half of the conference season with confidence and looking to finish on a successful note.

The long season has given setter Bryanna Weiskircher the opportunity to practice with all of the hitters and feel more comfortable and confident setting the ball to any of them, trusting that they will put the ball down for a kill.

"Our hitters are so good that it doesn't really matter who I set, when I set, because I know that they're going to put the ball down," Weiskircher said. "Even if they don't, we have a great defense behind us to keep going at it. Our offense and our side-out game is definitely one of our strongest weapons."

Four Nittany Lions are averaging over 2.5 kills per set. The team is hitting at a .286 hitting percentage (seventh in the nation). Sophomore Simone Lee, who in the last five matches has averaged 3.11 kills per set, said this speaks volumes about the players on this squad.

"We have incredible talent on our team. We have great depth when it comes to hitting, great personality and overall we have a really good sense of knowing who we can put where," Lee said.

Throughout the season, the offense has become better balanced, with multiple players tallying kills consistently. In Saturday's match against Michigan State, five Nittany Lions tallied at least five kills. Many players are coming off the bench or changing their usual positions, and are still successful and are notching kills.

Players like Heidi Thelen and Nia Reed have been moved all over the court in recent matches. Needing players to hit from middle, right side and outside in one season can be difficult, but it hasn't stopped the Nittany Lion offense. Weiskircher said being able to put hitters in different positions is what makes this team unique.

"It definitely gives us some different options and shows how versatile our team is," Weiskircher said. "Whenever we're going to play a team and they have our 'scouting report', it's not really a scouting report because they're never really sure what's going to happen."

Weiskircher said having versatile hitters, who are able to change positions, has allowed the team to remain a top contender in the NCAA.

"The fact that we can put Heidi [Thelan], Nia [Reed], Aiyana [Whitney] or Simone [Lee] on the right side, the middle or the outside really shows a lot about them and how hard they work every single day to pull something off like that and be able to complete at the highest level," Weiskircher said.

Standout hitter Megan Courtney has missed the past four matches due to an injury. This has called for many players from the bench to step up and show what they are capable of. Weiskircher said with the talent on this team, from the starting six to the bench, adjusting to new hitters has been easy.

"Our team is always so good at coming in off the bench and we always have a great 'seventh man' coming off [the bench]. It makes it pretty simple because they're working just as hard every single day in practice to get their shot on the floor," Weiskircher said. "And when they do, they work their butts off for us and for the team and it's really nice to see."

Lee said with Courtney out, many players have been moved around on the court and the team has had to come together, stay focused and make sure everyone is on their "A-game".

"Nia and Heidi have done a great job coming in, either Heidi playing middle and Nia playing right side," Lee said. "All of us have a collective fight, collective effort and make sure that no matter who is playing, we all have the same goal in mind; to beat the teams that we're going to play."

With 10 matches left, the postseason is in sight. Head coach Russ Rose said the weight of each match increases as the season continues.

"Each week the value of the matches have more implications because it impacts people's rankings, both nationally as well as in the conference, and impacts potential participation in the NCAA and matches [in the NCAA tournament]," Rose said.

The third-ranked Nittany Lions hope to continue their offensive success on Wednesday in Columbus against No. 11 Ohio State. Catch the game on ESPNU at 5 p.m. The Lions return home on Friday against the Buckeyes at 7 p.m. in Rec Hall.

VIDEO: Women's Volleyball Update - Haleigh Washington (10/28/15)

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - talks with sophomore Haleigh Washington in advance of Penn State's trip to Ohio State. The Nittany Lions will meet the Buckeyes on Wednesday at 5 p.m. (ESPNU) in Columbus before hosting the Buckeyes on Friday at 7 in Rec Hall.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

From an Island to the States: Wilma Rivera's Adjustment to America

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11422468.jpegBy Anita Nham, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It is not often to find a person who is willing to travel more than 1,600 miles to attend a college or university. It is even more rare to hear about someone who has traveled to various countries, like Thailand, Turkey and the Czech Republic in order to represent his or her National Team in volleyball.

But none of this is unique for 18-year-old freshman Wilma Rivera.

Rivera is from Carolina, Puerto Rico. She began playing volleyball when she was eight years old, but that was the last thing that her parents had expected. Her two brothers, Wilmar and William, were baseball players, and her dad was a baseball and basketball player. Rivera had been on a baseball field or a basketball court all her life to support her family, but she knew it was time for a change.

"I've always been on the field with baseball or on the basketball court, but I really enjoy volleyball," said Rivera. "I was home one time, and I said, 'Mom, I really want to play volleyball,' and 'Dad, I want to play volleyball," and they just agreed, so I went on and fell in love with the sport."

Rivera was a four-year team captain and MVP at her high school, Saint Francis School. She was also the starting setter and team captain of the Puerto Rican Girls' Youth National Team, and helped the team to the 2014 Puerto Rico Lopa El Nuevo Dia Championship.

After seeing Rivera's vast amount of talent and her passion for volleyball, head coach Russ Rose knew that Rivera would be the perfect fit for the Penn State's women's volleyball program.

"She possess good skills," said coach Rose. "I like how quick she is. She has a good feel for the game, and I think those are all good characteristics for a setter."

With all the volleyball success in high school, Rivera knew that Penn State had to be the next step for her future.

"Penn State volleyball is the best program," said Rivera. "If you want to be good and be the best, you have to be with the best. I really like [Penn State]. The academics are really good. I just love being here, and it's totally worth [the distance]."

The transition from international play to collegiate play is not an easy feat as they are two completely different systems. For example, the rules are not the same, and the game is slower in international play when compared to collegiate volleyball. This move can be difficult for people to adjust to sometimes, but not for Rivera. She understands that that is a component for being the best, and she wouldn't have it any other way.

"The adjustment is cool because it's a new experience," said Rivera. "I wouldn't say that it is difficult at all, but it is a change, so it is different. Obviously, the weather, classes, volleyball, how people train here, just everything, but I think it's good and I like it."

In Penn State's first match of the season against Buffalo, Rivera made her collegiate debut where she recorded eight assists and four digs. Later in the season, against South Florida, Rivera tallied a career-high of nine digs, and posted four digs in her Big Ten debut against Illinois. She is quickly getting adjusted to the team and collegiate play, and her coaches can surely see that.

"I think she's certainly getting much more comfortable with life as a college athlete," said coach Rose. "It's so much different than what she is accustomed to in Puerto Rico. Practicing daily, having to go to classes, lifting and doing these other things that are part of being a college athlete, those are just so different...I think she's doing fine with the transition."

But Rivera wouldn't have been able to adjust to the new lifestyle if it wasn't for her teammates.

"[My teammates] help me a lot," said Rivera. "They explain to me the different drills, and if I have questions about classes, they help me with it. The point is that we help each other, so nobody gets behind, so they're really good teammates."

Outside of volleyball, Rivera enjoys reading, listening to songs by Beyonce and other artists, being with friends, shopping and other things, but right now, her main focus is on volleyball.

"I love everything. I love my teammates and volleyball, like setting and playing defense, but doing whatever I have to do to help the team, I will do it," said Rivera. 

VIDEO: Women's Volleyball Update - Lara Caraway (10/21/15)

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - talked with senior defensive specialist Lara Caraway leading up to the team's match at Michigan on Wednesday (7 p.m. on BTN). Caraway made her first career start over the weekend.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

A Team Effort for a Big Ten Weekend

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11415319.jpegBy Samantha DelRosso, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- When starting players are absent from big competitions, players from the bench have big shoes to fill. It's their time to shine, their time to step up to show fans, teammates and coaches what they can do.

This was the case this weekend for the Nittany Lion women's Volleyball team. With standout senior Megan Courtney out and a slate of Big Ten matches ahead, sophomore Simone Lee, redshirt freshman Nia Reed and senior Lara Caraway had to step up to the plate.

And they did just that. On Friday night against Indiana, Lee led the team offensively for the second consecutive match, with 10 kills on a .474 hitting percentage. She also notched two blocks.  Lee said the team will continue to play to its standard, no matter the lineup.

"Even though Megan's not on the court, [it] doesn't mean we don't play Penn State volleyball, it doesn't mean we don't play the kind of volleyball that we know how to play," Lee said. "We did an excellent job coming out of the gate, all three games strong starting off."

Lee has been a versatile player this season, hitting from wherever she is put. Though it's an adjustment, she has been getting the job done to help her team.

"I'm trying to stay confident in each position that I'm put in, just making sure I can contribute the most to my team in whatever position he puts me in," Lee said. "I'm going to try and do my best at all times."

Reed, who prior to the Indiana match had only played in four sets, tied for second with six kills. She also had two blocks, notching her first career multi-block performance.

For Lara Caraway, it was her first collegiate start. Despite her nerves, she logged a career-high eight digs and hopes to continue that performance in the matches to come.

"It feels great being a part of the team on the floor. There was a lot of camaraderie and energy that was on the floor tonight," Caraway said. "It was like nothing I've experienced here so far and I'd like to keep experiencing it moving forward."

Rose was pleased with Caraway's performance.

"I thought Lara did what a senior should do and that's come in, play well and talk and help the younger players," Rose said.

On Saturday night, the Nittany Lions swept No. 18 Purdue. Lee led the team offensively once again with 12 digs on a .333 hitting percentage.

Haleigh Washington, who notched 10 kills and nine blocks, enjoyed playing with Lee and watching her succeed.

"Simone goes up and she goes with the mentality that she's going to get this kill. I love seeing that side of Simone," Washington said. "She's an incredible player."

With a key part missing in the weekend's lineup, the entire team had to make adjustments and work hard together to have a successful weekend. On Friday night, middle hitter Heidi Thelan hit from the right side. On Saturday, Ali Frantti led the team in digs.

Sophomore setter Bryanna Weiskircher led the team to a .315 hitting percentage, dishing out 36 assists. She also notched a career-high four aces. Although her top hitter, Courtney, was not on the court, Courtney's leadership was far from absent.

"She's always talking to you on and off the court," Weiskircher said. "She's just a great all-around teammate."

Despite a different lineup, the Nittany Lions went 2-0 on the weekend and advanced to 17-2 on the season. Next up for Penn State is a trip to Michigan to face the No. 23-ranked Wolverines on Wednesday at 8 p.m. Catch the match on the Big Ten Network.


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