Women’s Volleyball Begins Quest For Record Eighth National Title Friday
Penn State recently capped a somewhat underwhelming regular season, considering the deservedly lofty standards in Happy Valley, and given the program’s illustrious status within the women’s college volleyball ranks. The team finished with a 26-5 (15-5 Big Ten) record, but experienced its first string of back-to-back losses since November 2011. However, make no mistake; a Russ Rose-led Nittany Lion team is always unquestionably lethal when the calendar flips to December.
No. 7 Penn State will begin its quest for the three-peat in the first round of the NCAA Tournament this Friday against Howard (18-13, 11-1 MEAC) at Rec Hall. It’s the 26th consecutive time the Nittany Lions will host the first and second rounds. The victor will face either Dayton (Megan Courtney’s hometown program) or Villanova on Saturday.
It’s important to remember that last year was supposed to be a rebuilding campaign for the Nittany Lions, making the program’s recent success all the more remarkable. The team took the nation by surprise with a 36-3 showing, highlighted by a 20-match winning streak that saw Penn State drop only two sets on its way to capturing the 2014 National Championship and breaking the tie with Stanford for the most titles of all time (seven). Behind perhaps the most talented setter to ever take the court at Rec Hall, the über-athletic, ace-loving Micha Hancock, Penn State overwhelmed its opponents with unmatched prowess in all aspects of the game and sealed the deal just minutes from Hancock’s hometown (Edmond, Okla.) in Oklahoma City.
Hancock captured the 2014 AVCA National Player of the Year and was named a three-time First Team All-American. Outside hitter Nia Grant joined Hancock on the First Team in 2014. Unfazed by the daunting task of filling Hancock’s shoes at setter, redshirt freshman Bryanna Weiskircher has showcased an impressive ability to spread the ball around and dump it right on time. The Rockford,Ill., native posted 1,128 assists, 238 digs, and 61 kills heading into the postseason. Sophomore outside hitter Simone Lee has also been an important addition to Penn State’s high-powered offense, registering 148 kills thus far.
Despite the graduation of Hancock, Grant, and standout libero Dominque Gonzalez’s team-leading 478 digs in 2014, the Nittany Lions return more than enough firepower and shutdown defense to make a run at their seventh national title in nine years. Last season’s Most Outstanding Player (Hancock won it in 2013) in the NCAA tourney, senior outside hitter Megan Courtney, has started every match she’s played in during her Penn State career, missing only four contests earlier this season with a foot injury. Courtney is a double-double machine, notching extremely balanced numbers with 283 kills and 272 digs, and joining the 1,000 club in both categories on Oct. 12. Courtney is the first Nittany Lion since star outside hitter Deja McClendon to accomplish the feat.
Joining her on the outside is sophomore Ali Frantti, who paced the Nittany Lions with 391 kills in her first season on campus, and currently sits in fourth place on the team with 270 entering Friday’s opening round. Fellow sophomore Haleigh Washington is arguably the most fun player to watch in all of women’s college volleyball. The quick-witted Colorado Springs, Colo., native is one of the nation’s premier middle blockers, with 278 kills and team-best 146 blocks to her credit thus far.
Washington, a unanimous selection, was named a First Team All-Big Ten selection alongside Courtney and fifth-year senior Aiyana Whitney, while newly-appointed libero Kendall Pierce, a 2015 Senior CLASS Award candidate who finished the regular season with 131 digs, was given the nod as Penn State’s sportsmanship honoree. Whitney’s play has been stellar all year as she cruised to a team-high 324 kills during the regular season. Rose’s senior class, composed of Courtney, Whitney, Pierce, and reserve Lara Caraway, will be essential in guiding this young team deep into the tournament. Courtney, Whitney, and Pierce make up the 2015 team captains.
Pierce wrestled the starting libero job away from true freshman Keeton Holcomb, who hails from the Lone Star State (Belville, Tex., to be exact). Holcomb posted a team-high 309 digs before a slight dip in performance prompted Rose to shake things up in favor of the veteran Pierce. However, Holcomb should still factor into Penn State’s postseason plans and will be ready to go at a moment’s notice, while also adding depth at defensive specialist alongside fellow frosh Wilma River and sophomore Lainy Pierce — Kendall’s sister.
Breaking Down The Bison:
Despite No. 4-seed Nebraska’s shocking sweep of the Nittany Lions in the Big Ten regular-season finale this past weekend, Howard and head coach Shaun Kupferberg enters Friday’s 7:30 p.m. ET tilt with the Nittany Lions on the wrong end of tremendous odds. Sophomore outside hitter Khaila Donaldson leads the Bison with 395 digs and sits in the second place on the team with 317 digs, but Penn State should theoretically have no problem advancing to the second round, where it would face the winner of Dayton and Villanova on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
Scouting The Bracket:
USC finished the regular season ranked No. 2 in the country behind Washington, but the Trojans were rewarded with the top-overall seed heading into the NCAA Tournament, while the Huskies surprisingly received the fifth-seed. Familiar Big Ten foes, two-seed Minnesota, the highest ranked opponent in the Nittany Lions’ quarter of the bracket, and No. 6 Wisconsin, led by B1G Setter of the Year Lauren Carlini, sits above in the same region as three-seed Texas. Junior outside hitter Paulina Prieto Cerame, who is second on the Longhorns with 261 kills, transferred from University Park following the 2013 season. Fourth-seeded Nebraska, the only team to beat Penn State twice this season, is paced by junior outside hitter Kadie Rolfzen.
The regular season is over, and while Rose’s Nittany Lions aren’t blowing teams out of the gym like their usual selves, this is Penn State we’re talking about, after all. Regardless of how the ladies in blue and white fared during the past three-plus months, the bright lights on the biggest stages always brings out this bunch’s best.
The Nittany Lions’ journey to add an unprecedented eighth star to the back of their warm-up jerseys and complete another three-peat begins on Friday. Be there to witness history in the making.