Just a little over halfway through the conference schedule, the women's volleyball team is ranked 6th in the most recent AVCA poll (along with fellow Big Ten teams Nebraska (2), Illinois (5), Purdue (11), Minnesota (15), Ohio State (22) and Michigan (23)). On the heels of a huge victory over Nebraska and with some very important conference matchups looming, it's time to check in once again with the incomparable Dig Nittany Volleyball.
Black Shoe Diaries: The women's volleyball team has had somewhat of a roller coaster season, despite their Top Ten ranking. They struggled early in preseason tournament play, but are now looking really good, coming off a victory over Nebraska. What are your reflections over the first half of Big Ten play?
Dig Nittany Volleyball: Thoughts on the season to date? Comparing this team's performance against Nebraska last Saturday to its performance opening night in a 3-1 loss to Oregon (which, as it turns out, is a very solid team), I'm very impressed by the coaching job of Russ Rose and his staff. Deja McClendon and Ariel Scott have put together five matches where both of them have put in at least solid, if not spectacular, offensive numbers. That’s a big improvement over many of the early matches, in which one or the other would show up, but rarely both.
Moving to the middle hitters, although the connection between Micha Hancock and her middles has improved (Katie Slay and Nia Grant both had outstanding performances against Ohio State, for example -- Slay with 9 kills, a .438 attack % and 8 blocks and Grant with 9 kills and (not a typo) an .818 attack %), there's room for even more improvement.
One lingering problem has been that the L2 position is still a bit of a revolving door. Against Nebraska, Maddie Martin, 6-5 Fr. Aiyana Whitney, and 6-2 RS So. Darcy Dorton all saw playing time. Each one had her moments, but none played well-enough to Wally Pipp the position and claim it as their own for the remainder of the season.
BSD: Micha Hancock has taken over the starting setter role and looks to be another in a great line of Nittany Lion setters. Is she the real deal? Are we (no pun intended) set for the next 3.5 years with Micha?
DNV: We can't say enough about Micha Hancock - with her 70 service aces to date (first in NCAA Division 1, and only two off the all-time Penn State record with 8 matches to go) her 2-ball attack (Ed. - Oh man, go easy on this, you guys), her fearlessness, and her toughness (she's had poor matches, but she seems to bounce back with resilience that is remarkable for a freshman) - she has been a difference-maker this season. Without her serve, I don't think Penn State wins against USC, and it's possible the same thing could be said for the Nebraska match. She's still learning as a setter - set selection and placement, reading defenses, etc. - but she brings so much to the table in the other facets of her game, she played herself into the starting lineup.
As to whether Penn State is "set" for the next 3.5 years, I'd say yes, barring the unexpected. It would be unfair to compare Micha to the great setters from previous seasons, like Alisha Glass and Sam Tortorello, but she definitely is an impact player. One thing to remember about Russ Rose is that he doles out playing time based on current, not past performance. So it's always possible that someone better will come along and take the job. Unlikely? Yes. But no player at Penn State is guaranteed a starting job just by showing up.
BSD: How has the front row been playing this year, after losing some top talent the last two years? Have we essentially reloaded from the losses of Megan Hodge, Blair Brown and others? Or is the team struggling to find an identity?
DNV: Penn State fans are spoiled, having had four seasons in a row in which unbelievable talents like Nicole Fawcett, Megan Hodge, Christa Harmotto, Arielle Wilson, and Blair Brown. You don't plug in freshmen and sophomores - no matter what their potential - and simply reload from losses like that. This year's team features four sophomores on the front line (6-2 OH Deja McClendon, 6-2 OH Maddie Martin, 6-6 MH Katie Slay, and 6-4 RS/Opp Ariel Scott) and 6-2 Fr. MH Nia Grant. They are all talented, but they haven't played much together or with Micha Hancock, another freshman.
All that inexperience has translated into errors and poor communication - missed connections between hitters and setters, going to the wrong place for a block, or getting there late. I don't think it's a question of the team struggling to find its identity so much as struggling to understand how to play as a team and to fight through adversity on each and every point. The Nebraska match was encouraging in that regard but - and this is important - it was a home match. We'll see how the team does tonight against Minnesota in an away match.
BSD: Finally, a topic that we always love to debate at Black Shoe Diaries is recruiting. How is Penn State doing in that regard? We recently brought in a great class that is obviously paying immediate dividends. But what about the next year or two? Is Russ Rose killing it on the recruiting trail?
DNV: Just as in football and basketball, to name two, recruiting starts well before a player's senior season. Star volleyball players routinely give non-binding verbal commitments in their junior years, and sometimes even before. We've seen published reports of three verbal commitments for next year for Penn State (again, these aren't binding, so it's not final until they sign a LOI), and from anything we've read, all three are very good. Here's a brief look at all three (for a more in-depth look, go to Dig Nittany Volleyball)
- 6-2 OH, Paulina Prieto is another 2012 recruit considered to be among the top-10. Prieto was selected to PrepVolleyball.com's 2011 Top Recruit list. She was a 2010 AAU Junior National Championship All-American for the 16 - Open Division and, among other honors, was the 2009-2010 Miami Herald's Miami-Dade Volleyball Player of the Year.
- 5-6 Jr. Kendall Pierce, from Eden High School, Eden, New York and Niagara Frontier Volleyball Club. Kendall, who has been compared by some to Penn State's current starting libero Alyssa D'Errico, reportedly received scholarship offers from a number of schools, including Syracuse, but chose to walk-on at Penn State for the opportunity to play for Russ Rose and help the team win a national championship.
- 6-2 Setter/OH Megan Courtney,Kettering Archbishop Alter High School near Akron, Ohio, is ranked among the top-10 high school seniors in the 2012 class (some observers think she's the best). She reportedly visited Penn State, Illinois, Purdue, Cincinnati, and Kentucky.
Thanks again to our friends at Dig Nittany Volleyball. And tune in tonight to see these ladies take on Minnesota live on Big Ten Network at 9p (feel free to use this as an open thread if you'd like). To a five-peat!