It was a foregone conclusion Lainy Pierce would attend Penn State, but the senior defensive specialist has forged her own path in a family full of Nittany Lions.
Pierce’s parents, Robert and Kiernan, were both student-athletes at Penn State. Lainy and her older sister, Kendall, spent two overlapping years on the volleyball team, winning a national championship together in 2014. Their younger brother, Declan, is a redshirt freshman libero for Mark Pavlik’s Nittany Lions.
When Lainy comes off the bench to serve, she’s easily the team’s most reliable presence at the line, with head coach Russ Rose routinely choosing her to navigate key situations. In Penn State’s 3-1 win over Pitt to reach the Sweet 16, Pierce manufactured three straight points during a huge juncture late in the first set.
She heads into Friday’s NCAA quarterfinals against Missouri having connected on a team-high 98.4 percent of her serves this season, only committing errors on two of 127 attempts. Junior Keeton Holcomb and sophomore Emily Sciorra join Pierce as Rose’s two other main defensive specialists.
“We have to try to get as much out of them as we possibly can, because there’s a lot of demands on some of the six rotation players like Simone [Lee] and Ali [Frantti],” Rose said before the start of the tournament. “Part of it is giving those guys a breather.”
But it’s not only about keeping his starters fresh. Rose is a master of knowing when to draw on the strength of his stars and when to call upon his reserves to make a positive impact on the match. Sophomore Kendall White, the lone libero to earn All-Big Ten recognition last week, described what makes Pierce’s serves so difficult to handle earlier this season.
“I think the most underrated server [on the team]is actually Lainy, because it looks like a little bit of a lollipop, but it’ll get you — it just drops on you hard and not many people can pass it well,” White said.
Rather than simply focus on developing his team’s skills on the court, Rose also cares deeply about the special opportunity he has to teach his players lessons that will last a lifetime — well after their volleyball careers come to a close. Pierce followed in her sister’s footsteps as Penn State’s Big Ten sportsmanship award honoree.
“You miss the contributions that people make to the program more than to the game itself,” Rose said. “Lainy, like her older sister, is always in a good mood, always tuned in to what the team needs. If I get sent anything [as far as]requests, I send them to Lainy, the same as I sent them to Kendall, because they understand the importance of the team representing itself in the right way.”
Pierce’s family is volleyball royalty in her hometown of Eden, NY, just a 25-minute drive down Route 5 from Buffalo. Her dad coaches the boys’ team at Eden Junior-Senior High School, while his brother, Stephen, led the girls’ team to a record 14 state titles before retiring in 2016.
“My high school was really successful,” Pierce said. “Kind of like Penn State, we had a really good foundation built upon it. I made varsity in eighth grade and got to learn a lot from those older girls. When I was a captain my senior year, we continued the tradition and won states for the fifth year in a row.”
Pierce played outside hitter for the Raiders before transitioning to defensive specialist at Penn State, enrolling early in the spring of 2014 to get a head start on her academic and athletic career. She’s already earned her degrees in public relations and broadcast journalism and plans to move to either Philadelphia or New York after the season to pursue a career in corporate recruiting.
“My proudest moment as a Penn State volleyball player was serving in a national championship game,” Pierce said of the BYU sweep in Oklahoma City.
Lee, who arrived on campus at the same time as Pierce, spoke glowingly of her teammate’s dedication to her craft.
“She’s so determined. There’s not a day in the gym where she’s not going hard. She’s always encouraging everyone…giving constructive criticism. It’s so helpful.”
With four matches left on Penn State’s road to a record eighth national title, Pierce took some time to reflect on the importance of not letting these next few weeks slip by too fast.
“Just have fun — soak it up,” she said. “My little brother was texting me and I was just giving him some advice. He was saying how practices were getting tough, and I was like, ‘Dude, you’re not going to have this forever! A million people would wish to be in your spot, so enjoy it.’ I’m kind of giving myself that advice too.”