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Aug. 22, 2011
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Four years ago the Penn State women's volleyball team embarked on a historic journey. Many things have changed through the years; team members have graduated and moved on, staffs have changed and streaks have begun and ended. Yet, four national titles were won all under the guidance of head coach Russ Rose. No other Division I women's volleyball team has ever won four straight national titles, won 109 matches in a row or recorded 94 consecutive match victories on its home court, a streak which is still ongoing.
After seeing their record-breaking 109-match streak come to an end almost three years to the day it began, the Nittany Lions forged through another full season in 2010. Despite starting Big Ten play going 3-3, Penn State finished 16-4 and once again claimed the conference crown. The squad flew through the first four NCAA matches on their home court before facing Texas in the National Semifinals in a rematch of the 2009 NCAA title match. The Longhorns were no match for the Lions and neither was California as Penn State swept both teams in route to the program's fifth NCAA Championship.
As in the past, this year is a new year with a new team. For fans, the expectations are high. Will the Nittany Lions continue to dominate on their home court? Will more titles be claimed? Will new streaks begin?
Rose, who begins his 33rd season at the helm of the Nittany Lion program, is not worried about the answers to those questions. The squad graduated six seniors in 2010. Heading into 2011, 13 of the 17 players are freshmen and sophomores making for an incredibly young group of student-athletes.
"It'll be a new team with different learning experiences and a different path to where we have to go," said Rose. "It certainly won't be similar to teams we've had the last few years where we'd enter a match and feel we've had the best player on the floor, and players with experience winning the big matches. It's an incredibly young group. They're going to have a huge learning curve out there. We'll be like a number of young teams in the country and will try and mature and develop, establish a lineup that gives us the best chance to be competitive in a great conference and be at our best in November and December."
Kristin Carpenter (Mechanicsville, Va.) and Marika Racibarskas (Chatham, N.J.) each return for their third season with the Nittany Lions. Carpenter served as the starting setter for most of 2010. She guided the Lions to a .314 hitting percentage for the season, which ranked second nationally, and none of her primary attackers hit below .320. Her connections with the hitters and passers were integral to the success of the Nittany Lions, not just in the National Championship match, but also throughout the season.
Racibarskas, an Academic All-Big Ten honoree, saw action in her sophomore season as a serving and defensive specialist. She is one of the hardest workers on the team and is willing to play whatever role assigned to help the Lions improve.
"They're all different," said coach Rose. "Carp is the quickest and did a great job last year with veteran players around her. Marika is the best blocker of the three setters we will have on the team this season."
Freshman Micha Hancock (Edmond, Okla.) was a late addition to the list of newcomers for the 2011 season. Coach Rose will look to utilize her as possibly a setter, a hitter or both.
"Micha is strong and ambitious," describes Rose. "She is left-handed and fearless. I'll know more about her once we get in the gym. I think at this position we will have some players that have confidence in the things they do well. We'll have to try and find a situation and formula that allows us to maximize their strengths."
Hancock was a four-year letterwinner at Edmond Memorial High School where she guided her team to three Oklahoma 6A State Championships. The two-time Oklahoma Gatorade Player of the Year, Hancock was a 2010 Under Armour All-American. She was also the setter for the 2010 Youth Olympic Team and competed with the 2009 U.S. Junior National Team.
Coach Rose welcomes back a large, but inexperienced group of hitters. The group, led by senior Katie Kabbes (Raleigh, N.C.), includes redshirt sophomore Darcy Dorton (Muncie, Ind.) and sophomores Maddie Martin (Tampa, Fla.), Deja McClendon (Louisville, Ky.) and Ariel Scott (Ridgewood, N.J.).
"Katie is the veteran among this group as the lone senior," said coach Rose. "She is a great blocker and hitter on the right side. On the left side, we've seen Deja and Ariel both have good freshman years. Darcy, when healthy during her freshman season, was also a great option. Maddie will also continue to be another attacking key option for us. We counted on her last year to come in and make the big serve. Maddie has made improvement to her overall game and is physically strong. "
Kabbes appeared in 22 matches in 2010, making 12 starts. She totaled 99 kills for the season, averaging 1.71 kills per set, and 54 total blocks.
McClendon, the AVCA Division I National Freshman of the Year, started all 37 matches in her first season of collegiate play. She was named the Most Outstanding Player at the NCAA Championship, and picked up AVCA Second Team All-America and First Team All-Big Ten laurels. McClendon finished second on the team with 418 kills (3.43 kills per set) and was fifth on the team in digs with 230.
Dorton, who suffered a knee injury sidelining her for the 2010 season, will aim to return to the lineup in 2011. The AVCA Honorable Mention All-America honoree had a strong first season in 2009 and was selected Big Ten Freshman of the Year. She appeared in all 38 matches and finished fourth on the team with 276 kills, good enough for 2.39 kills per set.
Scott saw action in 20 matches, making two starts, debuting against Minnesota on Oct. 15, 2010. She totaled 143 kills for the season, tallying at least three kills in every match. Martin also competed in 20 matches for the Nittany Lions making her first appearance in the season-opener against North Carolina. Martin finished her freshman season with 22 kills, 15 digs and six blocks.
"I feel we have good athleticism and players with size. We don't have an experienced prototype ball-handler/hitter that we've had in the past that you need to solidify some areas. I think we'll have a variety of people in different positions at different times until we find the right formula."
Joining the five returners at the outside are freshmen Aiyana Whitney (Norwood, N.J.) and Nia Grant (Warren, Ohio). While Whitney may play on either the left side or right, Nia is also a possibility at the middle blocker position.
Whitney was a four-year letterwinner at Northern Valley Regional High School. She was a three-time All-League and First Team All-County selection, and a two-time First Team All-State honoree. Whitney was a 2011 Under Armour All-American and guided her high school team to the 2010 New Jersey State Championship.
Grant, who was named to the Under Armour Watch List her senior season, was the District I Volleyball Player of the Year, MVP and District I Division I First Team pick as a junior. A strong presence on the court, Grant was also a four-year letterwinner in track & field.
"I thought Katie came in as a freshman with great awareness of the middle blocking position and is an exceptional blocker," said Rose. "She has improved offensively since last year. Scott is an individual who has played both middle and outside. She is our best offensive player at this time."
Slay played in 23 matches last season and finished fifth on the team with 83 total blocks (1.60 blocks per set). She led the team in blocks on seven occasions, including posting a match-high seven blocks against California in the National Championship match.
Joining Slay and Scott in the middle will be redshirt freshman Erica Denney (Aurora, Colo.) and possibly Grant.
Denney guided her high school team to the 2007 Colorado State Championship, as well as a runner-up finish in 2008 and a third place finish in 2009. An Under Armour All-American, Denney was a three-time All-State honoree. She attended the A1-Select camp with USA Volleyball in 2007, won a gold medal at the 2008 NORCECA Championships and participated in the 2009 World Championships in Thailand as part of the Youth National Team.
"Erica continues to battle health issues, but she has fast feet and is a good offensive player,"said Rose. "Nia is talented, but not physical enough to succeed at the higher level. We hope for her to get stronger throughout the season and contribute. Nia has a high contact point and gets off the ground quick."
Senior Megan Shifflett (Falls Church, Va.) and sophomore Ali Longo (Littleton, Colo.) lead a group of new faces in the back row. Shifflett, a two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection, has been a serving and defensive specialist for the past three seasons. In 2010, Shifflett played in 30 matches and has valuable experience in big matches.
"Megan has clearly brought her game up as she enters her senior year," said Rose. "I feel she has been serving well, playing good defense and passing well as she enters her senior year."
Longo had the highs and lows typical of a freshman player, but also gained experience in some tough matches during 2010. She saw court time in 29 matches and finished third on the team with 20 aces.
Potential new faces on the court in the back row are redshirt freshman Maggie Harding (State College, Pa.) and freshmen Lacey Fuller (San Diego, Calif.) and Dominique Gonzalez (San Antonio, Texas.)
Harding was a four-year letterwinner at State College Area High School where she was a two-time All-District pick and an All-State selection her senior year. Harding also excelled off the court. She was a Faculty Scholar and graduated in the top 10 percent of her class.
Fuller, a four-time Scholar Athlete at Torrey-Pines High School, was the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year. She aided her team to the 2007 CIF Championship and the 2010 League Championship. In addition, Fuller's club team won a silver medal at the 2009 Miami Junior Olympics, finished fifth in 2010 in Reno, Nevada and placed third in 2011 in Atlanta, Ga.
Gonzalez earned 2009 AAU All-America accolades and was a two-time All-Texas Team selection. PrepVolleyball.com named her a Top 100 Senior Ace, while she also earned TGCA All-State 5A honors. Gonzalez was an excellent student outside the gym where she was a member of the National Honor Society, as well as the Spanish and Math National Honor Societies.
"We have three people vying for the libero spot, including Ali and newcomers Lacey and Dominique. One will probably be the libero and the others will be a key defensive players. All three have great serves. I'm not sure I'll travel with all five on every trip, but I think it is an area where we'll need to serve and pass well and generate some points. Overall this will be a group where we'll have to score points differently than we have in the past."