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Sophomore Lacey Fuller
Aug. 22, 2012
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Every year is a new year and 2012 is just that for the Penn State women's volleyball team. It is a new year, a new season with new opportunities. Players have graduated, staff has changed, freshmen have arrived and the schedule has new and different opponents.
Despite that list of changes many things have remained the same. Head coach Russ Rose is back for his 34th season at the helm of the Nittany Lion program. He is joined by fourth year assistant coach Kaleena Davidson and third year director of operations Adam Hughes. In addition, Rose welcomes the return of six players who had starting roles in 2011, as well as 13 letterwinners.
Maybe this squad does not have the experience of the teams that put together the string of four NCAA National Championships. There will be new faces in the back row and continued inexperience at the setting and libero positions, but the Nittany Lions are strong on the outside with depth and experience and are joined by an exceptional blocker in the middle.
As coach Rose may say, "Teams are what they are."
Will the Nittany Lions have more confidence this year? Will they make fewer errors?
"That's what you hope will happen," said Rose. "Every year is a new year. There are some things you can't predict. It's a different team, but that's not to imply we had a bad season in 2011. We were ranked in the top 10 all year and finished second in the Big Ten. There are some things in your control and some things out of your control. I thought we did some things well, while others we did not. Maybe we'll be better this year. We shall see."
The team spent the off season in the gym and had a competitive spring season. Leaders are emerging and team goals are set high. First year assistant coach and former staff member Steve Aird has brought a new energy to the gym and will continue to work with the players on and off the court. In the end, Coach Rose believes the team has listened, taken his message to heart and knows what it has to do to be successful.
Seniors Marika Racibarskas (Chatham, N.J.) and Kristin Carpenter (Mechanicsville, Va.) are heading into their final seasons wearing the Blue and White. Racibarskas, a two-time Academic All-Big Ten honoree, has been primarily a serving and defensive specialist during her Penn State career. According to Rose, Racibarskas has the most experience and training as a setter.
"Marika had a terrific spring season," said Rose. "She's strong and very good at blocking. She has relaxed and has made great strides in her game."
Carpenter served as the starting setter during the 2010 National Championship run. She guided Penn State to a .314 hitting percentage for the season. While her role changed in 2012, Rose is confident she will have a better season in 2012.
"What we need from Kristin is the energy, fight and commitment that is required of a senior whether she's the starting setter or playing part time," said Rose. "Kristin is a passionate kid and volleyball is very important to her. Others feed off her energy."
The seniors are joined by Micha Hancock (Edmond, Okla.) who is back for her sophomore season at Penn State. Hancock served as the starting setter in 32 of 33 matches in 2011 averaging 10.54 assists per set and pacing the Nittany Lion offense to a .267 hitting percentage. Hancock was honored as the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, as well as earning the title of AVCA Mideast Region Freshman of the Year. Hancock set the Penn State single season record for aces with 91 thanks to her impressive left-handed jump serve.
"Micha had an incredible freshman year," said Rose. "Her serve was the most productive serve that's come into the conference in the 21 years I've been a part of the Big Ten. She is still learning the nuances of setting and about leadership, and has great potential. Micha is a strong attacker and she may get the opportunity to hit this year."
Legends in the Making
Joining the three returners is freshman Megan Courtney (Dayton, Ohio) who coach Rose feels may be the team's best all-around volleyball player. She could see time as a setter and a hitter.
"Megan has a terrific volleyball IQ," said Rose. "She can perform all of the skills well, competes hard and has a good arm. She'll be in the mix, but I don't want to overload her and make her do more than I should."
Courtney was a four-time first team All-Area, All-District, GGCL and three-time first team All-Ohio State honoree. She led her team to the Final Four State Championship three times. A first team Under Armour All-American and the Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year, Courtney has experience competing with the USAV Women's Junior National A2 Team and was the No. 4 recruit in the nation.
Coach Rose welcomes the return of junior Katie Slay (Raleigh, N.C.), redshirt sophomore Erica Denney (Aurora, Colo.) and sophomore Nia Grant (Warren, Ohio) in the middle. While Slay is the most experienced of the trio, Denney has a great volleyball IQ and Grant has all the tools to compete at the highest level.
An AVCA Second Team All-American and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Slay brings the most experience to Penn State's middle position. She led the Nittany Lions with 173 blocks in 2011, averaging 1.42 blocks per set and was also third on the team in kills with 257. Her .386 hitting percentage was a team-best.
"Katie has made great progress here at Penn State," said Rose. "She's a fabulous blocker and has really improved her offensive arsenal of shots. She's not the prototypical, high-flying attacker that people think you have to have to be successful. Katie works hard, is very smart and a great communicator and understands she will have to do more to help the team."
Denney has battled injuries while at Penn State. After redshirting her freshman year and seeing limited action in 2011, she is finally healthy and could help the Nittany Lions in an important area.
"Erica had a good spring," said Rose. "She works hard, has a good disposition and is not rattled by competition."
Grant saw many of the typical ups and downs that many freshman face in their first year of collegiate competition. Despite that, Grant started in 32 matches finishing second on the team in blocks with 107 and fourth on the team in kills with 151 on .346 hitting.
"Nia opened the 2011 season with a great match against USC, but was often missing in other matches," said Rose. "Part of it was setting, part of it was confidence and some of it was maturity. She has flashes of brilliance and will have to make the commitment to really make it a priority to improve. Her tools are good. She's quick off the ground and fast to the pin."
Penn State has the most depth on the outside, especially with the return of two AVCA All-Americans in juniors Ariel Scott (Ridgewood, N.J.) and Deja McClendon (Louisville, Ky.). Joining the duo are junior Maddie Martin (Tampa, Fla.) and sophomore Aiyana Whitney (Norwood, N.J.).
"Ariel had some of the best matches of anyone on the roster last season," said Rose. "She is a strong attacker and always in good shape. She will be one of the major keys to us having a successful season and placing pressure on opponents."
Scott has the experience of being Penn State's go-to hitter and will continue to see the ball at key times in matches for the Nittany Lions. The first team All-Big Ten selection closed out 2011 second on the team in kills, averaging 3.54 kills per set, which ranked ninth in the conference.
"Deja has continued to improve and is getting stronger," said Rose. "Like Ariel, she is accustomed to taking important swings at critical junctures of the game. If she remains healthy and strong as the season progresses, she'll be a player that can make a great impact on determining whether we win or lose a match."
An all-around player, McClendon started all 33 matches at outside hitter. She was the team leader in kills with 432 and finished third on the team in digs with 245. McClendon is a two-time All-American, earning first team laurels in 2011.
Whitney saw action in 24 matches last season and totaled 113 kills. According to coach Rose, Whitney made huge strides during the spring season.
"Aiyana is our most prolific net player," said Rose. "There are times in practice where we don't have the ability to stop her. She continues to develop and I expect her to have a great future in volleyball."
Rounding out the returning outsides is Martin who saw a much enlarged role in 2011 from her freshman season. An Academic All-Big Ten honoree, Martin played in 33 matches and finished fourth on the team with 141 kills and fifth on the squad in digs with 156. Martin could see time in a variety of positions for the Nittany Lions in 2012.
"Maddie will continue to have a variety of roles on the team from serving specialist to being a libero to competing with the outside hitters," said Rose. "She has experience in a lot of ways in playing the game and I know she wants to do whatever it takes to help the team."
Legends in the Making
Joining the talented roster of outside hitters are freshman Paulina Prieto Cerame (Miami, Fla.) and Courtney. Cerame joined the Nittany Lions a semester early and was able to participate in spring competition.
"Paulina has an incredible arm and really likes to hit the ball," said coach Rose. "When she gets into a rhythm she is going to score some points. I'm enthusiastic to get in the gym with her. She may have a big impact on our success."
Cerame helped Palmer Trinity School to the Miami Dade District 16 Championship five years in a row. She was an AAU All-American and a member of the USA Youth National Team, which competed in the World Championships in Ankara, Turkey. She was ranked No. 7 in her class by PrepVolleyball.com.
Courtney who may see time as a setter and in the back row is also an option as an outside hitter for Coach Rose.
"As an attacker, Megan has good technique, as well as power, and a high contact point," said Rose. "She has a good arm and can generate points. She is quick on the ball and I expect her to be in the mix."
Sophomore Dominique Gonzalez (San Antonio, Texas) leads a talented crop of back row players returning for 2012. The group includes redshirt sophomore Maggie Harding (State College, Pa.) and sophomore Lacey Fuller (San Diego, Calif.)
"I think one of the people in the best position to do things is Dom," said coach Rose. "She has been our best passer and continues to be. Dom serves well and is a good communicator."
Gonzalez played in 29 matches during her first collegiate season and was primarily a serving and defensive specialist. She posted 123 digs for the season, averaging 1.46 digs per set.
"Maggie has improved a great deal," said coach Rose. "She's much stronger and is a very confident kid. She has a good fight to her. Lacey is an incredibly high-energy kid who throws her body around every time she is on the floor. There is never a practice where you don't come away being impressed with how hard she plays. I think she will be on the floor as the libero or as a back row sub."
Legends in the Making
Potential new faces on the court in the back row are freshmen Kendall Pierce (Eden, N.Y.) and Lara Caraway (Evans City, Pa.) Pierce led her team to the New York State Championship three times where she was named MVP. Caraway, who led her team to the Section Championships on three occasions was a two-time first team All-Section pick and a two-time ALL-WPIAL honoree.
"Kendall comes in with great success from her high school and club program," said Rose. "She is accustomed to playing all the way around. She will have to focus now on her serving, passing and defending. She comes from an athletic family and I know she will compete hard. Lara is a tough and spunky kid who plays hard. She concentrates well and is not afraid to get in the mix. She goes for the ball and goes hard. That's an intangible I've always been fond of."
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