In some ways, it’s more difficult to write about a defending National Championship team. There are only so many effusive adjectives one can use to describe the caliber of program that Russ Rose has cultivated in Happy Valley; quite literally, what he’s done, and what he continues to do, is nothing short of awesome. There’s a reason we’re preseason number one--again.
Oh, but who am I kidding? What other position would we rather be in than to discuss the possibilities of a repeat, and a potential sixth national tittle in eight years?
What We’ve Lost
Not much…only a trio of starters that rivaled some of the best, most prolific in Penn State women’s volleyball history: Deja McClendon, Katie Slay, and Ariel Scott. No big deal, right? In last year’s national title match, of course, Scott only led the team with 21 kills and five digs, Slay and McClendon following closely behind with 14 kills, three digs and three blocks and 11 kills and 8 digs, respectively—all three being named to the NCAA All-Tournament Team in 2014, naturally.
Plus, the accolades in prior seasons that the trio garnered—McClendon was a previous National Freshman and B1G player of the year, and all have been named to all-tournament and Big Ten Teams. Not to mention Slay’s National-Championship-winning kill when the trio were freshmen in 2009. Nope, not at a big deal to lose these ladies—but let’s face it, Ruse Rose has lost stellar players before (Megan Hodge, anyone?) and simply reloaded, so the odds are ever in his favor.
Who’s Coming Back
In the National Championship last year, the Nittany Lions faced a much-ballyhooed true freshman setter in Lauren Carlini who would have won Big Ten and National Setter of the Year…were it not for Penn State’s own killer from the service line, now-senior Micha Hancock. After an auspicious end to the 2012 season that saw an injured Hancock stay in the season-ending match despite the availability of a capable back up in 2009 setter Kristin Carpenter (a coaching decision that some say resulted in the earlier than expected loss by the Lions), Hancock had offseason surgery and roared back in 2013, on her way to being named the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player (and most outstanding volleyball player for other reasons). She’s currently the PSU career ace leader, with one more season to go in the blue and white.
Joining Hancock will be fellow 2013 starters L Dominique Gonzalez, OH Nia Grant, and OH Megan Courtney, who’s also now listed as a backup setter. DS Lacey Fuller and OH Aiyana Whitney, both of whom saw significant time in the 2013 season, also return, though key backup Paulina Prieto Cerame transferred to Texas earlier this summer.
Additionally, we’ve gotten some returning coaching faces courtside too. Former Penn State player and onetime assistant coach Salima Rockwell is back in Happy Valley as Associate Head Coach, returning after a three-year stint down in Austin; she’ll be a welcome sight as key assistant coach Steve Aird departed this offseason to take over head coaching duties for the Maryland women’s volleyball program.
For the uninitiated, there’s one thing you can count on with any Russ Rose-coached squad: there’s no such thing as entrenched starters. Every player has to work hard for their playing spot, and even three-year starting seniors can have their places taken by super talented, hard working incoming freshmen and up-and-coming sophomores (see: Carpenter, Melissa Walbridge, and many, many more). To that end, Rose signed what was considered by many to be one of the best recruiting classes in collegiate women’s volleyball this spring (with five of the seven players in the top fifteen of this year’s recruiting class—three in the top ten), and expect at least a one of the freshmen to garner significant national recognition by year’s end. My picks? It’ll probably be either Haleigh Washington, one of the best (if not the best) middle blockers in the country out of Colorado Springs, CO, or Simone Lee, an OH out of Menomonee Falls, WI. Check out Dig Nittany’s coverage of the recruiting class for a ton of great video of most of the freshmen.
Perhaps the biggest volleyball news in the offseason was the transfer of UCLA Libero/DS Skylar Dykstra to PSU this summer. Dykstra was a highly recruited prospect (including by PSU) before she committed to the hometown Bruins; she transferred this offseason having not played in LA, so she comes in as a RS freshman. Her sister played for Nebraska before transferring out.
Rose is notorious for playing a relatively tough non-conference schedule early on, and this year is no exception; while they’re not playing in the Nike Big Four this year, the second week of the season sees the Nittany Lions travelling to Palo Alto to take on Stanford and UCLA in the Big Ten/Pac 12 Challenge.
Of course, the Big Ten schedule is when the grind really begins—as last year proved, the Big Ten has undoubtedly become the nation’s premier women’s volleyball conference, and this year’s conference schedule is quite favorable for the Lions. Because of expansion, they don’t have a full round robin of every team, and most of the one-offs they do get are tough opponents—at Purdue (who took the Lions to five sets last year), Michigan State (who handed PSU their only B1G loss in 2013), and Wisconsin (last year’s surprise NCAA finalist).
With that schedule, this talent, and our coaching staff, six of eight is looking like a distinct possibility.
And they say we’re just a football school.