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NCAA Volleyball Tournament Central: Lions Head to Regionals

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The second-seeded and Big Ten champion Nittany Lion women's volleyball team (30-2) travels to Lexington, Ky., for a showdown with Michigan State (23-11) in the NCAA regional semifinals on Friday at 5 p.m. (Live coverage on ESPN3).

9540572.jpegThe winner of the Penn State-Michigan State match will move on to face either No. 7 Stanford (26-5) or No. 10 Minnesota (29-6) on Saturday in the regional final at 4 p.m. live on ESPNU.  The Nittany Lions split with the Spartans during the regular season, winning at East Lansing, but dropping the conference opener at Rec Hall.  Penn State's 3-1 setback to Michigan State was its lone loss during conference play.  The Lions swept Minnesota in 2013, winning 3-2 in Happy Valley and 3-0 in Minneapolis.

Penn State enters the weekend after sweeping LIU Brooklyn and Utah inside Rec Hall in the opening two rounds of the tournament.  The Lions have won 33 of their last 36 sets.  Penn State enters the weekend attacking at a .314 clip, led by All-Big Ten outside hitters Ariel Scott (3.18 kills/set) and Deja McClendon (2.92 kills/set).

Since the NCAA Women's Volleyball Tournament began its current 64-team setup, the Nittany Lions have advanced to the third round of the tournament all 15 years.  Penn State has played in the Regional Final match in 12 of the 15 seasons.

The Big Ten Conference has been tremendous throughout the 2013 season.  Having seven teams remaining in the draw during the second weekend of the tournament speaks volumes about the depth of the Big Ten.  In addition to Penn State, Michigan State and Minnesota in the Lexington Regional, Nebraska plays American in the Lincoln Regional and Illinois, Purdue and Wisconsin are all still alive in the Champaign Regional.

The NCAA field has been trimmed to 16 teams.  Penn State's quest for a return to the national semifinals goes through Memorial Coliseum this weekend.  First up is a clash with Michigan State on Friday.

VIDEO: NCAA Regionals Preview Interviews

Regional Semifinals Statistical Rundown


Feature Story Corner

From the eyes of head coach Russ Rose

Lions to Face Michigan State in Regionals
By Samantha DelRosso, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Penn State women's volleyball team defeated two teams last weekend that they hadn't seen this season. This weekend, however, will be very different. The Nittany Lions will face a very familiar foe in the NCAA regional semifinals on Friday.

9540568.jpegNo. 2 Penn State (30-2) will play Michigan State (23-11) for the third time this season on Friday. Minnesota, another Big Ten squad, is also still alive in Penn State's quarter of the bracket. This means that there is a possibility that the Nittany Lions will face the Golden Gophers on Saturday. Having already played these teams this season helps in match preparation, head coach Russ Rose says.

"[Seeing these teams again] removes the communicating with other schools trying to find information on [teams]," Rose said. "We played  [Michigan State] a month ago. We are at least familiar with them, as well as Minnesota."

The Big Ten has seven teams left in the tournament, which is the most of any conference (PAC-12 has four). Rose said the strength of the Big Ten comes from its challenging schedule.

"These schools are a lot tougher having played back to back nights against good teams on the road, on football weekends, and tough travel conditions. I'm a big believer that the conference makes us all stronger. Everybody [in the Big Ten] cares," Rose said.

Rose said without even factoring in the fact that Michigan State beat Penn State at home earlier in the season, Michigan State proved its talent after beating Kentucky at Kentucky in the second round of the tournament. He said the Spartans are a good team because of how they are put together. The team plays hard and they are coached very well.

"They had some great wins this year and one of those was beating us when we were No. 1 in the country. I shouldn't have to say much to our players about the strengths and merits of playing Michigan State," Rose said. "The record this year is 1-1, so this match gives [the teams] the opportunity to play another match. And Deja needs to upgrade her winning record in the state of Kentucky." 

Although the Nittany Lions have seen the Spartans play before, they know it will be a challenge facing off against the talented players on the Michigan State squad.

Senior outside hitter Lauren Wicinski has tallied 400 kills this season. Rose said she is a "terrific offensive player." Senior middle blocker Alexis Mathews has 139 blocks this season and touches close to 11 feet.  Rose said that when Mathews is "on", it causes the team a lot of problems.

"In the first match [against Michigan State], [Chloe] Reinig was very good. In the second match, [Allyssah] Fitterer was somebody that we didn't have an answer for, so I think they're all good," Rose said.

This year's tournament is the last shot for the seniors. Rose said that the seniors have a lot invested in this program, even those who haven't played very much.

"Maddie Martin has won some matches for us during her career when she was healthy and we need her. Erica Denney is a really good volleyball player with a great mind who has run into some physical challenges. And Maggie Harding, nobody cares more about what we've got going on," Rose said.

It's an win or go home postseason event, and Rose knows it will be a challenge against a familiar Big Ten foe.

"It's how you play, not who you play. When you get to a Regional, all of the teams are hungry, all of the teams are putting behind that they're tired or that they're sore, or that they have academic woes to worry about," Rose said. "Everybody is fired up about the possibility of competing for a National Championship."

The Nittany Lions will face the Michigan State Spartans at 5 pm on Friday in Lexington, Ky. (ESPN3).

From the eyes of the players

Nittany Lions Motivated to Compete in NCAA Regional Semifinals
By Chelsea Howard, Student Staff Writer
As the Penn State women's volleyball team advanced to the NCAA regional semifinals in Kentucky, the players are bringing more motivation than ever to close out a strong season in the quest to bring home a national championship.

Sophomore Megan Courtney played in the tournament last year and was on the court when the team faced a loss in the national semifinals. Having that experience behind her has helped the outside hitter prepare for what the rest of this tournament will bring.

9533602 (1).jpegFalling short of their goals last year left a feeling that they have not been able to forget. Instead, the players have used that as their strongest motivator as they continue to advance in the tournament.

"Last year I was happy to be in the final four and play for Penn State, but losing in the final four and losing with the teammates that I've been with the entire time is a feeling I never want to feel again," Courtney said.

Learning from last year's championship season, Courtney and her teammates are determined to continue battling through the tournament to a different feeling this time around with her teammates - a feeling of success.

"We also have teammates - like Deja (McClendon) and Katie (Slay) who have experienced the winning and also the losing so they know what it takes and what we have to do to get to that point and not have that feeling again," Courtney said. "That's basically what's driving me because that feeling is the worst feeling in the world and they know what it's like when that feeling is the best feeling in the world."

In order to reach that "best feeling in the world", the Nittany Lions know that they will all have to work together as one team. They will have to put each player into the position where they can play their best and help each other to make the best plays, instead of relying on just one player.

"The really good thing about our program is that one player doesn't have to carry the weight of the team all the time," Courtney said. "If Deja's having a great day defensively, then it's my job to have a great day offensively - it's like a give and take. If Slay is blocking well, we have to put Slay in a position where she can do what she's good at."

After their win against Utah in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the players saw exactly what makes the team work together. They will use that match to help build their confidence as they continue to advance.

"Especially for Megan who played really well in that match, I think it's good for our younger players to be confident going into the next match," McClendon said. "I think for the seniors it's good to know that we can be consistent because that's our job as older players."

For the six seniors, this tournament is their final chance to prove they have the high level of confidence to play at their best, the consistency between the players needed to advance, and the determination to get the job done with this group of girls.

"There's definitely an urgency because it's our last chance," Slay said. "This is the seniors' last chance to play with a lot of the younger girls on our team so there's definitely an urgency because I want us to do well. I know we can do well if we play together. It's really exciting in that regard because the possibility for greatness is there."

As the Nittany Lions are on the road for the first time during the national tournament, they will play Michigan State for the third time this season. Since the players have already matched up against them during Big Ten play, they know that the Spartans have made some adjustments, but they also know of a few things to look out for.

"They're still a little bit different and changed a few things," McClendon said. "But it does help knowing how we played against them in the past and what matchups their going to go to as well as their go to player - we know her pretty well."

In their last meeting against Michigan State, the Lions won, 3-0 (25-14, 25-18, 25-20).

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

Courtney's Offense Provides Spark In Victory

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By Samantha DelRosso, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Penn State women's volleyball team played its final home match of the season against Utah on Saturday, and the Nittany Lions knocked off Utah in a 3-0 sweep to advance to the NCAA regional semifinals.

9533602.jpegSophomore Megan Courtney said she had a 'gut feeling' that the team would play well together against Utah. She called the match Penn State's 'statement game'.

"You could see it in all my teammates' eyes. We had to show anyone who's watching what we're made of," Courtney said. "We didn't really make a statement game [against LIU] and I think today we all knew this had to be our statement game."

Courtney led the team to victory with her offensive efforts, tallying 17 kills on .556 hitting. She recorded four kills in the first set and five kills in the second. In the final frame, Courtney tallied eight kills.

"When [Courtney] plays well, she can score points in a number of ways," head coach Russ Rose said. "I think she's one of our better blockers and tonight she was the match's best offensive player. And I thought she passed really well."

The Nittany Lions logged 21 more digs than Utah. Utah middle hitter Erin Redd-Brandon said it was frustrating to take her biggest swings and have the Penn State defense dig the balls up.

"Everyone understands how good [Penn State] is at the net, but what they are very, very good at is their floor defense," Utah head coach Beth Launiere said.

Utah middle hitter Bailey Bateman attributed the fact that the team had trouble reading where the set was going to go to Penn State's good passing.  She said when there's a perfect pass, there are three or four hitters coming at the other team at once. If the pass isn't perfect, the team is a little bit out of system and the setter is down to two hitters or one, which makes it easier to read where its going.

"And [Hancock] is a great setter. She knows what she's doing, so it gets a little difficult to read," Bateman said.

The No. 2-ranked Nittany Lions had an early lead in the first set, leading the Utes 5-1 and forcing a Utah timeout, and later led Utah 13-4. In the first frame, senior Katie Slay hit at a .750 hitting percentage and senior Deja McClendon tallied 6 kills on .455 hitting.

"It's always good to have a nice little lead, it gives you a little bit of comfort," junior libero Dominique Gonzalez said. "But you can't relax because you know these teams play really good teams all season long and they're capable of coming back."

In the second frame, Penn State was off to another good start with a five-point lead before Utah called a timeout. The timeout sparked a small offensive run for the Utes, but Penn State came back with a 6 point run, making the score 14-5. The Nittany Lion offense continued to dominate through the end of the set with a final score of 25-15.

Penn State came out strong again in the third set, giving the Nittany Lions a four-point lead in the beginning of the frame. Utah came within two points of Penn State at 5-3, but kills from Courtney and Scott and an ace from senior Maddie Martin advanced the score to 12-6. Utah continued to fight at 17-10, but the Nittany Lions could not be stopped. The final four points of the set were kills by Courtney. The final score was 25-11.

This was the final match in Rec Hall for the Penn State seniors. McClendon finished with nine kills and a match-high 16 digs. Senior Ariel Scott tallied eight kills and senior Katie Slay led the team in blocking with five blocks.

Penn State will play Michigan State on Friday in Lexington, Ky., in the NCAA regional semifinals. 

Hosting Allows McClendon, Seniors Extra Time in Rec Hall

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By Chelsea Howard, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Since 1981, Penn State has had the opportunity to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament inside Rec Hall 27 times. The Nittany Lions have welcomed tournament teams for 23 consecutive years taking away the stress of traveling to start the postseason.

9532407.jpeg"I'm always grateful Penn State puts in a bid so that we have a chance to host. I'm appreciative of the fans that come and I'm appreciative of the band that plays," head coach Russ Rose said.

Not only does hosting give the Nittany Lions home court advantage, but it also give the seniors one more opportunity to play on the court they have grown to love over the past four years.

"I told the seniors I thought today's match was their senior night," Rose said. "I was really pleased with how those guys stepped up and played well. Deja (McClendon) finished off her last match in Rec Hall in a real positive fashion."

The outside hitter had a strong night against Utah where she led the team with 16 digs and registered the teams' second highest number of kills with 9.  However, coming into the lineup four years ago, McClendon didn't have much experience in the back row.

"It's great for Deja to lead the match in digs," Rose said. "I think it's the evolution of her game that she's a much more complete player and was willing to commit to the things she needed to do to get better."

After going through countless practices and matches in Rec Hall since her freshman year, McClendon was able to end her last match there on a high note before heading to her home state of Kentucky for the regional semifinals.

"It's a great feeling," McClendon said. "It's sad though and just unreal. I'm glad I had these guys to share it with."

Nittany Lions Advance to Second Round Against Utah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NCAA Volleyball Tournament Central: Lions Open at Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

VIDEO: NCAA Tournament Player Preview Interviews

First Round Statistical Rundown

Feature Story Corner

From the eyes of Coach Rose:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The team is eager for what is ahead.

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

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

From the eyes of the players:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

VIDEO: Happy Thanksgiving from Penn State Athletics

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

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

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

Four Years Come to a Close for Six Seniors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VIDEO: Slay and Seniors Approach Last Home Regular Season Weekend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harding Emerges as a Leader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grant's Improvement Plays Big Role in Lions' Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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