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'Dig Pink' Match Highlights Weekend Sweep

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10474428.jpegBy Anita Nham, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Following two wins on the road against Purdue and Indiana, the Nittany Lions returned home to Rec Hall this weekend to welcome Big Ten conference opponents, Michigan and Michigan State. Penn State continued to build on momentum from the road matches to finish the weekend off with two victories.

Though most of Happy Valley was concerned about Saturday's White Out, the volleyball team focused on a different color. Penn State teamed up with Side-Out Foundation in Friday evening's match against Michigan to feature the annual "Dig Pink" match in support of breast cancer research.

Established in 2004, the Side-Out Foundation is a support and advocacy organization that unites volleyball players and coaches to have them work toward the common goal of furthering breast cancer awareness, education, and patient services.

Friday was the seventh consecutive year that Penn State has held the "Dig Pink" match, and they have raised nearly $6,000 for the Side-Out Foundation.

"I think it's important for all the players to get involved in different causes," said head coach Russ Rose. "I think it's something that gets a lot of people and it's great that we're part of a special evening." 

Freshman Haleigh Washington echoed her coach in support of breast cancer awareness.

"I think it was fun and I thought it was nice that [us and Michigan] were all united in a cause," said Washington. "Michigan had pink on their warmup [jerseys], too, and it was kind of interesting to see that even though we're two opponents playing against each other, we are still united in a cause, and there are still things that brings us together as a community. It was inspiring and it was energetic and it was fun."

The Nittany Lions swept Michigan in three sets (25-18, 25-16, 25-16) in front of the biggest home crowd the team has seen all season. The crowd also came out to support the cause for breast cancer awareness as it was impossible to look anywhere without seeing any pink. The atmosphere was filled pink pom-poms, rally towels, wrecking crew hats, and pink T-shirts.

"I thought [the energy] was ecstatic," said Washington. "I love having a big crowd. I think it's fun. I think it makes Rec Hall even more home...The support is awesome because you know that whether you're hitting the ball into the net or bouncing the ball at the 10-foot line, the [crowd's] got your back and they're ready to support you. It's awesome."

Teammate and fellow freshman Ali Frantti played in her first "Dig Pink" match alongside Washington and had a great time.

"It was a big crowd tonight and I think it was just fun," said Frantti.

Frantii and Washington were huge components in Friday's match as they each recorded double-digit kills. Frantti had 15 kills on .429 kitting and Washington had 10 kills on .421 hitting, while also logging four blocks.

"I love playing with Haleigh, especially," said Frantti. "She's passionate and I would be off without her."

Penn State took on Michigan State Saturday evening and came out with its 20th victory of the season with a sweep (26-24, 25-17, 25-21).

Senior Micha Hancock recorded 33 assists, five digs, four kills, and a match-high of four aces.

Redshirt junior Aiyana Whitney led the team with 12 kills on .364 hitting and Frantti got 11 kills on .409 hitting.

There are 10 more matches in the conference season, but there is still much to be done.

"As Coach Paterno used to say, 'You're not as good as you think you are when you win or as bad as you think you are when you lose,'" said coach Rose.

Penn State will have a quick turnaround with Ohio State coming to Rec Hall on Tuesday for an 8 p.m.

Lions Looking to Build on Road Victories

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10394883 (1).jpegBy Anita Nham, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Nittany Lion women's volleyball team faced adversity two weeks ago as they fell to No. 15 Illinois in a 3-1 match, but the Lions roared back on the road last weekend to earn two-straight wins.

Now, Penn State is looking to carry that momentum into a pair of home matches.

Penn State headed to No. 14 Purdue last Friday evening and came out victorious in a tough five-set (26-24, 23-25, 22-25, 25-23, 15-9) battle. The Nittany Lions won the first set, but came up short in the next two sets. The team was able to regroup and collect themselves to regain momentum and win the following two sets and the match.

"We stayed confident in each other [when we were down a set] and trusted our ability in things we've done in practice and fighting hard for every point," said senior Dominique Gonzalez. "I think the belief that we have in each other and the confidence that we had that we could pull it out really helped us."

Penn State's momentum continued into the next night as the Nittany Lions swept Indiana (25-11, 25-19, 25-15) at University Gym.

"It was a huge team effort," said junior Aiyana Whitney. "The hunger proved ourselves that we can do great things and we can win matches, like those tight matches in hostile environments and that's something we really wanted, so we rallied as a team to better the team effort."

This weekend, the Nittany Lions hope to continue their drive from their two wins as they return to Rec Hall to take on Michigan at 7 p.m. on Friday evening and Michigan State at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday evening.

"I think [winning] builds a little team morale," said Gonzalez. "We kind of needed those wins. It was a battle at Purdue, so that helped out a lot, but going into this weekend, they're two different teams that fight very hard and they're coming to Rec Hall, but that doesn't mean anything if we don't play the way we should play. They're two really tough teams. Michigan beat Nebraska, which is a great win, so they're strong teams with great setters and great offense and defense and it's going to be a tough matchup, but we're preparing the best way we can."

In preparation for this weekend's matchups, focus has been high on the practice court this week.

"We have been working a lot on our blocking," said Whitney. "We've been putting a lot of time and effort into trying to make that more of a strength rather than a weakness, so I think that's something we want to emphasize on this weekend knowing that these are great attacking teams and that's something we definitely need to step up if we want to be successful this weekend."

With a good week of practice and more confidence, the team is ready for this weekend.

"We're feeling a little better about where we are. I think we're pretty focused in practice, so I would love for [our confidence and momentum] to carry into the matches this weekend," said Whitney.

Though there is still a long season ahead, the players want to focus on taking each match one at a time.

"We're trying to be focused on every match as best we can and focused on playing every team as hard as we can, said Gonzalez. "We have to take one match at a time. We can't look past any match or look onto the tournament until we get through conference."

Whitney echoes her teammate and believes that the team has a lot to build on for the future.

"I think this team has great potential. I know that everyone thinks we're super young and that's true, but I think we can do great things. We're working hard right now, so down the road, we're playing to our fullest potential," said Whitney.

Lions Looking To Bounce Back

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10439589.jpegBy Anita Nham, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - All sports teams hope to be the very best that they can be throughout every season. Teams strive to string together victories en route to playing their best at the end of a season.

But inevitably, groups face adversity.

It's how a group responds to the adversity that often shapes a team's character. The Nittany Lion women's volleyball team returns to action this weekend looking to get back on track following a setback to No. 15 Illinois.

"Some weeks you may feel confident going in and you'd like to think you're going to win your matches at home, but we didn't take care of the ball in the match with Illinois and you move on," said head coach Russ Rose. "You don't look back. You can't worry. I'm a big believer in 'One lost can't beat you twice.'  You identify to the people this is what we need to get better at...and you try and get better."

Prior to last weekend, Penn State had lost only two matches. After both losses, the team came back stronger than ever with straight-set wins against their next opponent.

"When you lose, you go back to the film and look at what I could have done differently, so I think it does give you a little fire to come back and bounce back," said senior Micha Hancock. "But I think we need to be better at creating that fire ourselves, instead of having to get a lost and having to get ourselves, we can motivate each other."

The team hopes to relay back this weekend as they take on No. 14 Purdue (16-2, 6-0) on Friday evening and Indiana (12-6, 3-3) on Saturday evening.

"Our emphasis [this week] is to try and get two wins. I mean, we're scouting the teams, we're going to mix up some shots, we're going to see what we're looking at, and I think it's also just trying to make less errors," said Hancock. "We're a young team now and we're not trying to out block and out dig a team and still lose. It's just hard work in the gym, communicating what we can get better at."

Junior Megan Courtney also believes that they have a few things to work on for this weekend.

"[We need to work on] just being better teammates. I think Coach talked about it a lot that we're great players, but we haven't really been able to come together as a team very often, so focusing on the team aspect instead of trying to do it individually," said Courtney. "[It's also] just little things at practice. Trying to finish drills that don't necessary mean much in practice because it carries over to games. It was clear against Illinois that we didn't finish up the first game like we should of, which could have swung the momentum for the game, but we just need to be able to start fast and end fast and be able to close, so that's what we've been working on."

In addition, Courtney has been a leader in helping the underclassmen to bounce back.

"I just keep telling them that you're here to make mistakes, you're a freshman, I'll take the blame for anything, or I'll help you out as best as I can... you need to just worry about you and I'll try to do what I need to do to help you get better and help you be confident because that's what we need from them; we need confidence from them," said Courtney. "We need them to take big swings and if they keep doing that, then we're in pretty good shape."

Coach Rose understands the situation and still has high expectations for the team.

"It's been a tough situation when the expectations are as high as they are and the preseason, we're ranked No. 1 in the country based on winning last year's national championship," said Rose. "I think it's a real task for some people to not believe the press clippings, but what they do when the other teams are really good. That's the part of the equation. The Big Ten is an incredibly tough conference and everybody is beating everybody. Purdue is the only team hasn't suffered a loss yet this season."

The Nittany Lions will continue their season this weekend, but there is still a long way to go.

"We have seven more weeks of Big Ten play, so that's a lot of matches," said coach Rose.

Lions Come Up Short Against Illinois

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10431045.jpegBy Samantha DelRosso, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERISTY PARK, Pa.-- The stage was set for a great first start at home for freshman Haleigh Washington: a Big Ten matchup in Rec Hall, an energetic crowd and an excited band. But the Nittany Lions fell to the Illinois in four sets.

Despite the outcome, Washington's first start in Rec Hall was an exciting experience for the young middle blocker. Leading up to the match, she kept her composure while trying to shake her nerves. But as soon as it was game time, she knew it was time to go out there and "do her thing."

"I was trying to do the best that I could and bring whatever I could to this team," Washington said. "Everybody has a job and I was just trying to do mine."

In the first set, the Nittany Lions had a 19-8 lead over Illinois. After multiple scoring streaks, the Fighting Illini fought back to make the score 23-17. With five unanswered points and a four-point scoring streak at the end of the set, the Illini took the first frame, 26-24.

"We scored a lot of points [in the first game], we blocked better. We had some areas where I thought we were going to do some things and surprisingly enough, [Illinois] battled a little better than we did," head coach Russ Rose said. "In the beginning of the year, I had Illinois as the team to win the conference."

In the second set, the Nittany Lions beat the Illini 25-16. Illinois came back to take sets three and four, 25-23 and 25-22 respectively.

Penn State had momentum in end of the final frame that kept the Nittany Lions within two points at 24-22, but the Illini finished off the match with a block.

"We had fire at the end of the game. Then there's that little hope and it's just crushed and that's the worst feeling; when you're so close and you're thinking that it's good and it ends up being too little too late," Washington said. "It's disappointment and a chance to work harder at practice. We don't really linger. We're ready to come back and work harder."

Although the Nittany Lions fell to the 15th-ranked Illini, Rose noted that Washington played especially well for her first start in Rec Hall.

"Her energy is always good. She is a confident, young person. She hit really well [and] took some good swings," Rose said. "Considering it was a big match with a lot of people and a lot of importance, she really represented herself well."

Washington had a career-high 14 kills on a .538 hitting percentage. She had seven blocks, but said she needs to improve her blocking.

[My blocking has] got to be a better game. In a conference like the Big Ten, blocking is a really big, important aspect of your game. I'm trying to improve on that," Washington said.

Throughout the entire match, Washington's energy was very positive, even when the team was down.

"I had to go in and play my game. I was trying to take care of what I could take care of and control what I could control," Washington said.

Washington and the Nittany Lions travel to Indiana next to face Purdue on Friday at 8 p.m. 

Whitney Fuels Lions to Sweep Past No. 24 Northwestern

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10417629.jpegBy Anita Nham, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Redshirt junior Aiyana Whitney went into this week's practice knowing that she needed to improve on blocking and transition balls. Whitney displayed that she achieved what she had strived for by leading Penn State's offense with 12 kills on .500 hitting as well as a match-high of seven blocks in Wednesday's sweep (25-20, 25-17, 25-17) against No. 24 Northwestern.

The Nittany Lions have now won their last 23 consecutive matchups against the Wildcats, which gives Penn State a 47-8 lead in the series.

"She was the leading scorer in the match and I appreciate her effort tonight," said head coach Russ Rose. "I thought she played well and it's nice when somebody gets a chance to get recognized."

Aiyana was particularly dominant in the third set, which provided Penn State with the momentum that it needed to finish off the match. She recorded three points for the Nittany Lions by making three kills in a row after the Wildcats received senior Micha Hancock's serves. Hancock tallied 30 assists, seven digs, three blocks, and a match-high of four aces.

Junior Megan Courtney also logged double-digit kills with 10 kills on .400 hitting. She also had eight digs and two blocks. Senior Nia Grant followed close behind with seven kills and senior Dominique Gonzalez held the team together with 10 digs.

Though Penn State came out with a win, Whitney believes that there is still much more to improve on.

"[Our energy coming out of the gate] wasn't our best, that's for sure. I think all-around it kind of lacked emotion and that's a huge part of the game," said Whitney. "I mean, energy-wise, if we don't pick that up, then the game could easily go the other way. Personally, my blocking was what I really wanted to focus on and I think it's something that I've been struggling with in the middle position. It's new to me and it's something I've been trying to work on."

Coach Rose also recognized that the team has a lot to work on before Saturday's match against No. 15 Illinois.

"I think our blocking is an area that needs to be better and just court awareness. There were some plays out there that players had no idea what was going on. Just because you win, doesn't mean you know what's going on," said Rose. "I didn't think anybody came ready to play. Practice has been like that for a few days. You watched our match last week on TV, that's what it looked like, so just no emotion, no real leadership out there - it was pretty disappointing. It would be fine if it was a recreational team and we were deciding where we were going to go afterwards for a snack, but that's not how I look at the last five decades that I've been coaching at Penn State."

Penn State will be welcoming No. 15 Illinois to Rec Hall at 4 p.m. on Saturday. The Fighting Illini forced a fifth set at Ohio State Wednesday evening after falling into a 2-1 deficit, but fell short to the Buckeyes to drop to 11-5 in the season and 3-2 in the Big Ten.

"We saw Illinois at the beginning of the year and since then, they've played much better, so I mean, Illinois is strong in all positions," said coach Rose. "They've got veteran players at the pins and they're going to be pretty fired up after losing a five-game match [last] night at Ohio State. You know, life on the road in the Big Ten is very, very tough and we need to make it tougher than it was today. The girls need to work a lot harder. We'll go hard [today] at practice. I want to find out who wants to play."

Coach Rose wants to see the team continue to grow.

"The expectations are high here. The players who are recruited, the expectations are high and that's the way it should be," said Rose. "So if you look at results, I don't think that's the best way to look at things. I think performance makes the difference."

Whitney hopes to build on the success for this weekend's match.

"We got to be ready to play," said Whitney.

Whitney Looking to Build on Strong Start to 2014

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10303818.jpegBy Anita Nham, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Everyone has an idol or role model that he or she grows up admiring, whether it be a family member, a celebrity, an athlete, or someone in a different occupation. We based our lives and principles around these certain individuals because we wanted to grow up and accomplish everything our heroes had achieved.

The same story goes for women's volleyball redshirt junior Aiyana Whitney who began playing volleyball after watching her older sister, Anissa Whitney, on the court.

"[I started playing] in middle school," said Whitney. "My older sister picked it up in her high school years and I was just kind of one of those little sisters that said "I want to do it too," and I didn't expect to fall in love with it, so I mean, I guess I would owe it all to her and me just wanting to be like her."

Whitney's older sister helped shape Aiyana into the player she is today.

"I knew nothing about the sport and she definitely helped me out as best as she could growing up," said Whitney. "I think kind of just watching her play and then she kind of encouraged me to take it more seriously and you know, start to really try and improve my game to play at top level."

Nearly four years ago, when it came time for Whitney to select a college to attend, she knew that no other school would compare to Penn State when it came to playing volleyball at the top level.

"You come to a program like this because you want to play in gyms such as Nebraska the other night," said Whitney. "I mean, those are the atmospheres you come to big schools for and I think just Penn State's tradition of winning and excellence and success has been something that draws any player who wants to play big time volleyball, so I think that's what made me come."

Whitney is having an excellent season thus far. She currently has a .377 hitting percentage, which sits at the fifth spot in the Big Ten standings. She received MVP honors from the Penn State Alumni Classic for leading the team in terrific offensive and defensive performances, especially during the win over UIC when she led the team with 13 kills on .722 hitting. Whitney also made the All-Tournament Team following the Villanova Classic after she recorded double-digit kills and a career-high of six blocks in the team's win over No. 24 Kansas.

This past weekend, Whitney logged nine kills and two blocks as Penn State faced off Nebraska and Iowa. Though the Nittany Lions swept past Iowa, the team fell short against Nebraska. Although, Penn State beat Iowa to cap off the weekend, Whitney believes that there is still much to improve on.

"I think we just need to get our game a little tighter. I feel like we had a lot of holes in our game in terms of running on offense. It was kind of difficult for us to get middles involved and things like that," said Whitney. "I know on a personal note, blocking and transition balls are something I need to work on and I think if we get that side of our game a little more air-tight than we have a better chance of competing harder against our opponents."

Whitney is looking on the positive side of things, nonetheless.

"I think coming out of it, we see what we need to work on and we see where we need to tighten our game," said Whitney. "I think it's kind of given us even more motivation going into this week of practice to really prepare for this upcoming weekend."

The Nittany Lions take on Northwestern and Illinois this week and Whitney is moving forward with great confidence.

"This season, I definitely want to defend what we earned last year and I think the best way to do that is to pick up our game now and look forward to the rest of the season," said Whitney. "No one ever likes losing and loses are pretty awful, so I think right now the main focus is on the matches we have ahead of us and just getting better every day."

VIDEO: One-on-One with Salima Rockwell - Oct. 7

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - talks with associate head coach Salima Rockwell for an update on the Nittany Lions. Penn State hosts Northwestern on Wednesday inside Rec Hall.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

Gonzalez Leading the Lions in the Back Row

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10394883.jpegBy Anita Nham, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - At most sporting events, the fans in the crowd believe that the flashiest plays are the most notable ones. In volleyball, the kills and the great digs get the crowd excited and up off their feet, but what about the technical aspect of things?

A match cannot have any true momentum to it without the back row having strong serve receives. Penn State's back row has been doing a terrific job with that this season, especially from senior libero Dominique Gonzalez.

Gonzalez earned the Defensive Player of the Week for the Big Ten after helping the team notch two wins against then fifth-ranked Wisconsin and then 17th-ranked Minnesota. She led the team with 6.71 digs per set, including 21 digs during the Wisconsin match and a season-high of 26 digs against the Gophers. The win against Minnesota marked the fourth match of the season where Gonzalez had 20 or more digs.

"It's a great feeling," said Gonzalez. "It's the first time I've gotten it in my career, so that was pretty cool."

Though she is honored to have won this week's title, Gonzalez has other things on her mind.

"I think the more important things to focus on are the wins that we had and getting better at things we need to get better at and focusing on this week. The awards and stuff are cool, but winning as a team is better in my eyes," said Gonzalez. "As a team, I think we've got to improve on consistency. We missed a lot of serves at crucial times, so going back to the service line, being confident, and just being sure, We had a great match against Wisconsin and our play kind of slipped a little bit against Minnesota, so maintaining that consistent level of volleyball at all times."

Gonzalez began her collegiate athletic career nearly five years ago when she decided to leave San Antonio, Texas, to continue her passion for volleyball at Penn State. The 1,600 miles between home and Happy Valley made no difference to her as she knew that Penn State was her top choice.

"The community, the excellence it has in volleyball, I mean, you have a legendary coach, so in my eyes, there was nothing more," said Gonzalez. "Playing [for] Penn State volleyball was what I wanted. Playing for coach and being part of such a tradition. You look at all the success the program has had in the past and that's something I wanted to be a part of and wanted to be the best player that I could be and I knew that coach could bring that out in us."

Her family helps to provide a strong support system, as well.

"It's my last season and my parents are retired now, so they're making more of an effort to go to away matches, which is great to have people in the crowd supporting us in such big venues where a lot of the crowd is against us."

Since being and playing as a freshman, Gonzalez's game has grown exponentially, but she continues to look for improvement throughout her final season.

"When you come in as a freshman, there are a lot of overwhelming feelings when you're on the court. The game is faster - you're playing with girls that are anywhere between 18 to 22 years old and they're experienced as well," Said Gonzalez. "I try to improve a lot on my consistency and not being too high or being too low when you play well or play bad."

The Nittany Lions are almost midway through the season and still have a lot to look forward to.

"I think we always set our standards at the highest point we can so as a team I think we want to win as many matches as we can and get better each time we play and hopefully win a Big Ten Championship," said Gonzalez. We just want to do what we can to make a good run in the tournament."

Nittany Lions Focused on Consistency

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10394816.jpegBy Samantha DelRosso, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- After a successful Big Ten opening weekend, the Penn State women's volleyball team is focusing on being consistent on the court as conference play continues on the road.

Junior Megan Courtney said consistency will put the No. 3-ranked team on the road to success.

"[The emphasis this week is on] consistency and being able turn out points one after the other," Courtney said. "And believing in each other that we can beat whoever the opponent is."

The Big Ten Conference is rigorous week in and week out. Head coach Russ Rose noted that the conference season is a constant battle for 20 matches. There are nine weekends remaining in conference play. Rose said the team can't get too high with a win or too down with a loss because it's a two and a half month-long schedule.

"[The Big Ten season] is way more of a marathon than a sprint, so you really can't get yourself all tied up in one chapter of the big book," Rose said.

The Nittany Lions are off to a good start at 2-0 in conference play. But at this point in the "marathon", Courtney said there are still aspects of the game that need improvement.

"It's not about just winning the first two games in the conference. We could lose the next 18 and not be anywhere near our end goal," Courtney said. "It's about remaining consistent, keeping a good mindset and saying 'yes, it's great to win, but we also need to learn from the mistakes that we made in the first two games.'"

In addition to its competitiveness, the Big Ten is also known for its attendance at venues and thrilling atmosphere during matches. Freshman Simone Lee got her first taste of the Big Ten environment during the matches against Wisconsin and Minnesota this weekend.

"The crowd was cheering no matter what. It was electric in the air," Lee said. "But we did a pretty good job of tuning it all out and really focusing on the game and what we had to do to win."

The two matches were a good introduction into the Big Ten for Lee and many of the other freshmen. Lee said it prepared her for Penn State's match on Friday against Nebraska, a team whose facility is even louder and more energetic than Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The Bob Devaney Sports Center, where the Cornhuskers play, leads the nation in attendance. Rose said Cornhusker fans love their women's volleyball team and urge them on appropriately throughout the match.

"Nebraska is incredible. The best part is they don't cheer for technically Nebraska. They're all wearing red, but if the rally goes on forever, they cheer for volleyball. They cheer for good volleyball whether Penn State wins the rally or Nebraska does," Courtney said.

Not only is Nebraska a team with a consistently packed house, the Cornhuskers are among the nation's elite teams.

Coming in at No. 8, Nebraska is 2-0 in Big Ten play. Nebraska is a very athletic team with a physical style of play.

"They're a big team that's going to take a big swing and can count on another full gym to help them have the energy when times are tough," Rose said. "Nebraska won both matches last weekend, so they're in the same situation that we are heading into week number two."

Heading into their second weekend of Big Ten matches, the Nittany Lions' approach remains the same. The group understands the importance of playing at a high level every time it steps on the floor.

"Every weekend in the Big Ten you'd better be focused," Rose said. "You're playing teams that are ranked, you're playing programs that have great tradition or you're playing teams that need to bounce back after a tough weekend."

VIDEO: One-on-One with Megan Courtney - Oct. 2

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - catches up with junior Megan Courtney for an update on the Nittany Lions heading into this weekend's matches at Nebraska and Iowa.

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony