Penn State women’s volleyball star Simone Lee enjoyed a breakout junior year, cementing herself as one of the nation’s top outside hitters. Her 503 kills ranked 24th nationally and were good for fourth place in the Big Ten.
While the Rec Hall crowds have grown accustomed to watching Lee soar high above the net with ease, it’s her work behind the scenes that sets her up for success on game nights. Russ Rose’s team spends nearly the entire year in State College — training, taking classes, and, every so often, winning national championships.
The Nittany Lions captured their seventh collegiate title in program history in 2014 when Lee was a freshman, sweeping BYU 3-0 in Oklahoma City. This year seems as good as any to break the tie with Stanford for the most of all time, as Penn State boasts a roster loaded with six experienced seniors and plenty of young talent.
Lee discussed what a typical summer training schedule looks like for her and the Nittany Lions. The team gets up early Monday, Wednesday, Friday to lift from 7-8 a.m., then players go to class or a part-time job. Every Tuesday, Thurday, Penn State runs sprints in the South Gym.
Whether it’s serving as statisticians at the heralded Happy Volley tournament or working with campers during the second summer session, Rose’s bunch is always busy. In Lee’s case, the journalism major from Menomonee Falls, Wisc., has a 210-hour (three-credit) internship with the university’s strategic communications department alongside teammates Lainy Pierce and Nia Reed.
“Simone during her freshman summer was taking classes and probably a few more naps than she would be her senior year,” Lee said with a laugh.
The team reconvenes to scrimmage around 5:30 p.m. daily, where a new duo of right sides are being incorporated into the Penn State volleyball culture. Freshman Cami May, a Katy, Texas, native, graduated high school early to enroll for the spring semester. Junior Ole Miss transfer Kathryn Cather played her prep volleyball in Hoover, Ala., and earned a spot on the SEC All-Freshman Team in Oxford. She’s eligible right away.
“They’re great,” Lee said of May and Cather. “They’re definitely willing to work hard and get in the gym, especially being two newcomers they’re very open to new ideas. They can definitely contribute to the team.”
Lee’s traveled to events In Mexico and Thailand with the U.S. Junior National Team in the past, and had another chance to play the game overseas this spring. The NCAA allows teams to go on an international trip every four years. This time, they toured Brazil, competing against local teams in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
“Brazil was absolutely amazing,” Lee said. “A lot of the girls on our team were saying if we hadn’t taken this trip, ‘I don’t think I would have gone out of the country.’ I think it was just such a cool experience to see a different country with people you consider family.”
Lee plans to head home to Wisconsin in late July and for a few days in August, then she’ll visit her sister in Dallas before returning to campus for more preseason preparation. The Nittany Lions will have the perfect opportunity to test themselves against the championship standard, with two early-season showdowns versus John Dunning’s Cardinal just eight days apart.
“They won the national championship last year. Obviously Inky [Ajanaku]’s amazing,” Lee said. “Stanford’s one of the top programs in the country. Playing really good teams can help us find our way, find our place, and keep us motivated.”
Ajanaku and Penn State alum Aiyana Whitney are training with the U.S. Women’s National reserve team in Anaheim, Calif., this summer while the starting squad is in Peru for the 2017 Pan-American Cup. Fellow former Nittany Lions Micha Hancock and Megan Courtney helped pace the red, white, and blue to a perfect 5-0 record in Pool A play.
Saturday’s semifinal appearance is a chance to ensure they at least match last year’s bronze-medal showing. Lee and middle blocker Haleigh Washington could potentially represent Team USA in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. For now, they’re focused on taking that national championship record back.