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By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUSports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Having won five of the last seven NCAA titles, expectations are always high for the Penn State women's volleyball team. Despite losing a host of production from last year's squad, the squad expected to be among the nation's elite.
The No. 1-ranked Nittany Lions graduated six seniors last season, including blocking powerhouse Katie Slay to back row weapon Deja McClendon. Head coach Russ Rose will turn to a roster blending eight new faces with veterans as the Lions look ahead to the start of 2014.
"You enjoy great players when they're here and you hope the players that come after them respect the tradition and work hard to make those same sacrifices and contributions," Rose said.
After being on a team with players like McClendon, Slay and Ariel Scott for many years, it may be hard for some players to get used to so many new faces. Defensive specialist Dominique Gonzalez, who, as a senior, will be a team leader this year, said she enjoys having the new faces in the gym because they are excited to be there and are working hard to get better.
Junior outside hitter Megan Courtney will also be taking on more of a leadership role this year. One of her jobs will be to instill what needs to get done in the younger players. Being an older player also means that she will become a go-to hitter. Courtney says that even though she is a veteran, she will still need to perform well because the novice players this year are "studs."
"If I play well, everyone else will be play well and that's what I can do to make the team better," Courtney said.
Just two years ago, Courtney was entering her freshman season, so she knows what the newcomers are going through right now. As a freshman, Courtney played in 36 matches and said that sometimes her head would get clustered during the match. She understands that this may happen to the freshmen this year, but it's her job as an older player to make sure they maintain a positive mindset.
"They're freshman, they make mistakes, we all make mistakes, so it's a matter how we come off of those mistakes and learn from them. To just prepare for the next point and not dwell on the past," Courtney said. "We all make mistakes so it's a matter of how we turn those mistakes into good points."
Outside hitters Alli Frantti and Simone Lee are two freshmen that Rose said played well this preseason, but there is competition going on between all of the new players.
"There's battles going on at all the positions, but a lot of it is impacted by who is cleared for practice that day," Rose said. "All of the net players have showed some talent and potential. I saw it in most of them when I recruited them."
Rose said the speed of the game is going to be the biggest transition for the younger players. And what bigger change of speed than going from high school and club volleyball to the Big Ten Conference. Rose said the much of the success of the team will be based on how the coaching staff and older players prepare the younger players to compete in the Big Ten environment, both at home and away.
"I know how good the conference is and the quality of the players and coaches. [I know] how tough the venues are. The older players who have been in the conference for two and three years, they have a much better handle on it than the young people," Rose said.
Gonzalez shared a similar outlook on the Big Ten and knows that the team must practice hard this season.
"We know conference is tough. Every match we have to be prepared for. No ones going to be an easy game or giveaway games and were trying to instill that in the other players," Gonzalez said. "You start off the season completely new, we won it last year but that means nothing this year. We are going to work to be successful again but we know that's going to be a lot of work."
This weekend, the Nittany Lions will kick off their season with three home matches. On Friday, they will face TCU at 7:30 p.m. Last season, the Horned Frogs were 16-15.
On Saturday, Penn State will play Iona and William & Mary in a doubleheader at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., respectively. Iona went 16-14 in the 2013 season and William & Mary was 11-21.
Senior middle hitter Nia Grant is ready for the weekend, but knows there is always room for improvement.
"You always want to get better, so I'm going to still use this week to get ready for the games and continue to get better as the season progresses," Grant said.
Rose said earlier this week that Grant is one of only three players (Micha Hancock, Grant and Courtney) who will definitely be on this weekend's starting lineup. The rest of the starting lineup has been impacted by injury and inconsistency, so the time is now for the freshmen to step up.
"We might start up to three freshmen. It's hard to start [the expected starters] when they're not cleared to play right now," Rose said. "So we'll play this weekend, and then we'll play the next weekend and we'll play hopefully the next 17 weekends."
Winning the 2013 National Championship means that all eyes will be on Penn State this season. And the Nittany Lions know the road in 2014 won't be easy.
"I think everyone on the team, coaching staff, players all agree with me when I say that its an expectation to go back to the final four, but we all know that it's not just given to us because we won last year," Courtney said. "It's what we do in the gym that's going to do the talking."