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Youthful Penn State Women's Volleyball Team Set to Open NCAA Tournament Play

by and on November 30, 2018 12:45 PM

Oh, to be young and foolish.

The Penn State women’s volleyball program is steeped in tradition and is synonymous with success, but never has it been so dependent on so many young athletes.

Now, the No. 8-seeded Nittany Lions (23-7) have reached that time of year when they so often have risen to the top, opening NCAA tournament play Friday, hosting Howard (20-10) at 7:30 p.m. at Rec Hall. Syracuse and Yale meet in the night’s first match at 5 p.m., with winners advancing to the second round at 7 p.m. Dec. 1.

Seeing the America East-champion Bison across the net should be familiar — this is their fifth meeting in the past four seasons, and the third encounter in that stretch in the NCAA first round. That should make scouting and preparations slightly easier, especially after closing the regular season with a pair of marathon matches against top-10 teams.

The Nittany Lions beat Minnesota and lost to Wisconsin, with both matches extended to five sets and ending after 11 p.m.

“Coming into the NCAAs you’re pretty energized,” libero Kendall White said. “I don’t think any of us are really exhausted.”

Penn State was pretty sluggish in the loss to the Badgers. Fighting through an off night and nearly winning — the Lions had three match points — goes to the program coach Russ Rose has built. But dealing with such sluggishness at this point in the season also can be traced to the youthful roster. The season opened with just three returning starters, with eight freshmen and 10 newcomers on the 16-woman roster.

“When we play well then we have the potential to play with the top teams,” Rose said, “and when we don’t have great energy and we’re not connecting, we cause ourselves a lot of challenges that we can’t overcome.”

Rose has had a few other seasons with large freshman classes — the 2010 and 2014 teams each had better than a half-dozen freshmen and both finished with titles — but none have been like this. There were times during the match against the Gophers there were five freshmen among the six Lions on the court. Rose has drawn a little from the lessons he has learned from other freshman-heavy seasons.

“I think I’m probably about 50-50 on doing it well,” said Rose, whose seven NCAA titles are best among Division I coaches. “I’m more of just a straight shooter and just telling them what I think. I base my conversation on what I see, not on what I think they are thinking.”

While the youngsters are athletic and talented, they still have a lot to learn and have much expected of them.

A prime example of how the fortunes of the freshmen and the team can be a roller coaster came in those last two matches. Freshman right-side hitter Jonni Parker had a career-high 29 kills and five blocks against the Gophers, and followed that with 11 kills and 13 hitting errors against the Badgers.

Those are part of the growing pains with a team like this, with both the coaches and elder leaders tasked with smoothing the rough stretches.

“It’s a two-way street of helping (Parker) but at the same time letting her figure it out,” Weiskircher said. “That’s something, as a freshman, she has to be able to understand.”

As the season restarts, more wisdom will be expected from the old folks.

“Keep them calm, and, like, get the jitters out of the way,” said White, the most emotional and excitable Lion. “I don’t think they need to overthink things. A game is a game no matter what the circumstance is. Yeah, it’s single-elimination and that’s like pressure to some people, but if you go in with confidence, we can beat anybody.”

There is little doubt White is oozing with confidence, and is not at all worried about the higher stakes of this time of year. She has seen the progress the team has made since the season opened, and feels there is a lot of potential left.

“That pushes us, that drives us,” White said. “I don’t think you can win a national championship if you can’t handle that kind of pressure. If you’re scared to go into a game just because you might lose, or it might be your last game, you can’t go into a game thinking that or you’re going to lose. You can’t play scared, you have to play with confidence.”

 



This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.


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