Countdown to the Women's Volleyball Season Opener

"For my class it was the first time we hadn't won our last game, which was really tough. It was probably the best thing that could've happened to this group of girls because we know that it doesn't come easy. We've had outstanding players in the past and we have outstanding players now. It's now in the back of our minds that they worked so hard to get this program to where it is so we can't do what we did last year. The offseason this past year was a whole lot more driven. It was a great offseason." --SR S/DS Kristin Carpenter on the differences between this offseason and her last few offseasons in the program. "It was a reality check."

The Penn State women's volleyball team opens their season tonight versus Morehead State in Louisville, KY, in the Active Ankle Challenge. Ranked #3 in the AVCA preseason poll, what should we expect from the Nittany Lions this season?

The Roster

Though undoubtedly hurt by the off season departures of Ali Longo and Darcy Dorton to Hawaii and the College of Charleston, respectively, enough talent returns on the 2012 squad for it to be a legitimate title contender for the fifth time in six seasons. As has been usual in most seasons under head coach Russ Rose (except for, by many reports, last year), look for upperclass leadership on and off the court, tempered by an influx of talented freshmen who will look to challenge for playing time early on. Similar to last year, however, there will be little turnover in 2013; only two members of the 2012 squad will be graduating after this season.

Returning Contributors:

"My expectation for the 2012 season is to emerge not only as a physical leader on the court and also a vocal one. I expect for every player on this team to push themselves a step further so that we can make it back to the top as National Champions."-- Unanimous preseason All Big Ten player Deja McClendon

JR OH Deja McClendon: McClendon looks to follow up her stellar freshman (named AVCA Division 1 National Freshman of the Year) and sophomore (first-team All American) seasons with an equally strong junior campaign. She returns after leading the team in 2011 with 432 kills (3.54 per set), and posting 245 digs (2.01 per set). Coming to Penn State from Kentucky, the team visited McClendon's high school last night, where her former team, Dupont Manual Magnet, retired her jersey.

JR MH Katie Slay: Slay followed up her match-winning kill in the 2010 National Championship with a strong sophomore season, being named second-team All American, first-team All Big Ten, and Academic All American in 2011. She led the team in blocking with 173 (1.42 per set, a mark that led the entire Big Ten conference), and was third on the team in kills with 257 (2.11 per set). She also sported a team-best .386 hitting percentage, and goes into the 2012 season having been named to the preseason All Big Ten squad.

JR RS Ariel Scott: Scott is the third Penn State player to be named to the preseason All Big Ten team. She was named a third-team All American in 2011, as well as first-team All Big Ten. She was second last year on the team with 418 kills, 3.54 per set and with a hitting percentage of .260.

SR S/DS Kristin Carpenter: Carp is one of only two seniors on the team, and one the squad count on as an on- and off-court leader. She started at setter for most of the 2010 National Championship season, despite not being of traditional setter build; in 2011, she transitioned back to a defensive specialist/libero role after the first game of the season versus Oregon. She tallied 182 digs last season.

SO S Micha Hancock: Hancock burst onto the court last year, starting much of the year as a true freshman. She was named Big Ten Freshman of the year in 2011, notching 10.54 assists per set and 1,275 assists for the season, and 270 digs. She also set a Penn State single season aces record for the year with 91.

JR OH Maddie Martin: Martin saw significant time last year, when she was named to the Academic All Big Ten team. She tallied 141 kills and 156 digs for the season.

SO OH Nia Grant: Grant returns for her second season having had a productive freshman season, hitting a .346 for the season. She was second on the team with107 blocks (.91 per set) and ended the season with 151 kills.

The Wildcard:

FR OH Megan Courtney: According to Coach Rose, true freshman Courtney may be the team's best all-around volleyball player and has the best chance to see playing time early:

"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."

Filling out the depth chart:

FR DS Lara Caraway, RS SO MH Erica Denny, SO DS Lacey Fuller, SO DS Dominique Gonzalez (who, according to reports on GoPSUSports.com, has had a tremendous offseason, could see significant time early), RS SO DS Maggie Harding, FR DS Kendal Pierce, FR OH Paulina Prieto, SR S Marika Racibarskas, SO OH Aiyana Whitney

The Schedule

"I think the Big Ten conference more than prepares teams to play in the postseason. I've always liked to play good teams early in the year. It gives not just me an idea, but the players, an idea of how we stack up against top teams and players in the country. That's pretty important information." --Head Coach Russ Rose

This weekend, the Nittany Lions take on a trio of teams not to be overlooked. Tonight they take on Morehead State at 5 pm; the Eagles made their program's first appearance in the NCAA tournament last year, and are picked to win the Ohio Valley Conference this year. Penn State follows that match with a double-header Saturday versus Western Kentucky (at 1:30 pm) and Louisville (at 7:30); the Hilltoppers made their sixth NCAA tournament appearance in 2011 and received votes in the preseason coaches poll, while the Cardinals are preseason favorites to win the Big East after notching their first regular-season conference title last year.

The first home football game weekend of the year sees the women's volleyball team returning to Rec Hall for the Nike Big Four Volleyball Classic next weekend. Florida, Stanford, and Texas all trek to Happy Valley, and unlike many tournaments this isn't a round robin; Penn State misses Florida, but plays Stanford (preseason #6) on Friday at 8 pm and Texas (preseason #2) on Saturday at 7.

The Classic is followed up by a trio of matches in Chicago (versus DePaul, Oregon State, and Illinois-Chicago) before returning home for the Penn State Classic on 9/14-9/15; this year, the annual round robin mini tournament features Portland, Duquesne, and Eastern Illinois.

Big Ten season starts on September 19 at home versus reigning Big Ten champion Nebraska, who is the preseason favorite to win the conference again this year. As with last year, Penn State will play nine of the eleven other conference teams twice, and the last two teams only once; this year, they play Michigan and Michigan State each only once, on the road and at home, respectively.

The Big Ten looks to once again be arguably the best conference in NCAA women's volleyball, with seven teams in the top 25, and Michigan State also receiving votes: Nebraska comes in just after the Nittany Lions at #4; Illinois, the reigning NCAA runner-up, at #9; Purdue at #9; Minnesota at #16; Michigan at #23; and Ohio State at #24. Per Coach Rose, the conference is a good one:

"I think it's always tough every match, home and away. The venues are challenging. The scheduling because of television makes it a bit more challenging. I think the conference will be very strong. The fact that Illinois made it to the finals of last year's national championship is a great reflection of the team they had and the strength of this conference. There were two or three teams last year during the season that were ranked No. 1. I think it's a great conference."

This year, with the competition both in and out of the conference stepping up, the Nittany Lions look to do the same, and take back both their conference crown and National Title. This weekend, and the next, will give us a good idea on how realistic that goal may be.

Position key:

S: Setter

DS: Defensive Specialist

L: Libero

OH: Outside Hitter

MH: Middle Hitter

RS: Right Side Hitter


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