There are a ton of coaches over a wide variety of sports who value experience and seniority as much as sheer talent and hard work. With these coaches, you can look at a preseason roster, see returning starters and know without a doubt who will be starting the first game in any season.
Women’s volleyball coach Russ Rose, at 1,091-175 over 34 years of coaching at Penn State, is not one of them.
Just ask Big Ten Freshman of the year of 2012 Megan Courtney, who impressed so much in preseason camp that she started almost the entire season last year. Before her was Big Ten Freshman of the year Micha Hancock, who pushed returning starting setter Kristin Carpenter down the depth chart in 2011. Before her was Big Ten Freshman of the year Deja McClendon, who ended up being the star and MVP of the National Championship match, the most recent one of Rose’s career.
Who’s going to be the standout this year? It’s hard to tell, and it’s still early—and by all accounts, the returning six starters might be too entrenched this year of all years for a freshman to crack the opening game lineup.
The likely starters include five who garnered accolades last year: junior S Hancock (1,403 assists, 11.22 per set; 298 digs, 2.38 per set; 76 blocks; 81 aces, .65 per set), senior RS Ariel Scott (469 kills, 3.75 ps; 102 blocks, .82 ps; .308 hitting %), senior MH Katie Slay (279 kills, 2.29 ps; 164 blocks, 1.34 ps; .462 hitting %), senior OH Deja McClendon (403 kills, 3.25 ps; 339 digs, 2.73 ps; 70 blocks), and sophomore Courtney (240 kills, 2.0 ps; 237 digs, 1.98 ps; 101 blocks, .84 ps). Also returning as a starter will be junior DS Dominique Gonzalez (457 digs, 3.66 ps; 26 aces, .21 ps), who was the team’s Libero for much of the year last year.
Most teams would have a go-to defensive specialist as their seventh starter, but this is where I think Coach Rose gets a little tricky. McClendon has a very solid all-around game, so she’s likely to stay in for almost every entire match—until the outcome is far from in jeopardy. Hancock is the same, a setter who likes to keep her opponent guessing, often attacking from the front court when she’s the second one to touch the ball. Slay is notorious for getting subbed out when the rotation sees her in the back court, and junior DS Lacey Fuller (169 digs, 1.42 ps; 19 aces) saw a lot of serving and back row time last year in that regard. But I really see junior Nia Grant (205 kills, 1.65 ps; 120 blocks, .97 ps; .376 hitting %), who was an unsung hero in much of the team’s run to the final four last year, as yet another option that opposing blockers will have to keep an eye out for. Also look out for RS sophomore Aiyana Whitney (113 kills, 14 digs, 25 blocks), who redshirted last season in but saw consistent play as a true freshman in 2011.
As for what freshmen to look out for to make a splash? This year, there’s no clear-cut answer like Courtney was last year, or Hancock and McClendon were before her. This year’s recruiting class wasn’t as highly ranked as in the past (by contrast, Nebraska’s was #1 in the country, with fellow B1G foes Minnesota and Wisconsin coming in at #3 and #4), but that has more to do with the positions of need at Penn State than anything else—three of the four players in this class were defensive specialists or liberos. Two of the players were in-state, as well, which tends to lend itself more to players filling out the roster—though the lone hitter in the class, MH Kelly Robertson, was named the Gatorade Pennsylvania Player of the Year.
Gauge for yourself who will be the next player to watch over at the Volleyball blog at gopsusports.com; as they do every year, they did video interviews with all the incoming freshmen.
All stats are for the 2012 season only, except for Whitney's, which are from 2011.
Positions are Setter (S), Libero (L), Defensive Specialist (DS), Middle Hitter (MH), Outside Hitter (OH), Right Side Hitter (RS)
For the full depth chart (including non-scholarship players), go here.
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