Dominance is a cliche word in sports. But it’s actually applicable to the Penn State women’s volleyball team, which won its fifth national title in the last seven years in 2013 and is out for a repeat performance.
To recap: Penn State beat Wisconsin over Winter Break for its sixth-ever title. Katie Slay, Arielle Scott and Deja McClendon were all key seniors for the Nittany Lions, and all three were named to the NCAA All-Tournament team. In regular season play, the Lions were nearly perfect, going 30-2. The team did not drop a set in non-conference play.
So yeah, coach Russ Rose’s squad is dominant. And signs point to another season of headaches for opponents — women’s volleyball is the No. 1 ranked team in the country and returns more than half of its starting lineup. And just for fun, it goes into the season with last year’s No.1 recruiting class in the nation.
But even with all the good signs, there are still a lot of unknowns for the Nittany Lions going into the 2014 season. The trio of All-Tournament players mentioned above have graduated. Outside of Rose, the coaching staff is brand new. New additions include Rose’s former player and assistant Salima Rockwell, who returns to Penn State after a five-year stint with the Texas longhorns as their associate head coach.
With the graduation of such production for the Nittany Lions, the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation is expected to see some time this season. At his press conference on Monday, Rose said he could start up to three freshmen this year. Starting a freshman is becoming part of the Rose tradition — outside hitter Megan Courtney, middle hitter Nia Grant and setter Micha Hancock all started in their freshmen seasons. Another newcomer this season who may see playing time is Skylar Dykstra, a transfer from UCLA who was highly recruited by Penn State before she chose the Bruins.
The Nittany Lions are still bringing back a core group of players this season, including the 2013 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player Hancock, who currently leads the Lions in career aces with 254. In front of Hancock, two outside hitters return: Grant, now a senior, and Courtney, a junior. Also returning this season is libero Dominique Gonzalez and key players off the bench Lacey Fuller and Aiyana Whitney, who both played a significant amount of time last year.
The schedule this season is bound to be tough for the Nittany Lions, as is customary. The Big Ten proved itself last season as the hardest conference in women’s volleyball and it looks to remain that way. The Lions start their challenging schedule early at the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge, where they will face No.3-ranked Stanford and UCLA. The Lions are set to begin their Big Ten schedule against championship game opponent Wisconsin on Sept. 24, which will be its first televised game on BTN. This season, the Nittany Lions will play seven games on BTN and one on ESPN3.
The Nittany Lions start their season at 7:30 p.m on Friday against TCU at Rec Hall.