Women’s Volleyball Searching For Its Identity After Early Loss
Russ Rose’s Nittany Lions finished their season-opening Penn State Classic 2-1 following a pair of easy sweeps over West Virginia and Georgia Southern and an exhausting 3-2 loss to then-No. 19 North Carolina that raised a handful of question marks the team must answer moving forward.
A pair of new Nittany Lions made their mark on the first match of the season, as junior transfer Abby Detering earned the first start at setter over incumbent Bryanna Weiskircher, who played the whole morning match against Georgia Southern and split time with Detering in the setback to the Tar Heels. Despite being the odd one out in the setter competition, sophomore Wilma Rivera rotated in frequently at defensive specialist and played with poise. True freshman Kendall White out of Indianapolis has been phenomenal as Penn State’s unquestioned starting libero, showing savvy court presence and a penchant for spectacular digs.
“We received a really good effort from two newcomers,” Rose said following the West Virginia match Friday night. “Kendall [White] had 16 digs and that’s not as good as the other girl who had 18 kills in three games against us (Payton Caffrey), but certainly I thought Kendall did a really nice job passing and playing defense.”
The Nittany Lions clearly looked more comfortable, especially late in sets, when they were able to move the ball around efficiently and get contributions from a host of outside hitters and middle blockers.
“I thought that this team is what it is,” Rose said. “This is a starting point. I think we’ll have matches where we play better and lose and I think we’ll have matches where we play worse and win. I’m sure we’ll have a full gambit of experiences during the season.”
Penn State got an early taste of what happens when it’s only able to get one player going offensively, as junior outside hitter Simone Lee’s career-high 23 kills against North Carolina were undoubtedly spectacular, but the team effort as a whole was lacking in terms of spreading the ball around.
“The problem is, you’re asking Simone to carry the team, because we have to pass well to get the ball to Heidi [Thelen] and Tori [Gorrell]. Tori looked like she was gonna have a big game and she ended up with six swings,” Rose said after the loss. “You can’t hit .548 the first game and then just go to sleep.
“I thought Simone was really good. I thought Simone was taking big swings all night long and I thought that was really cool for her,” Rose said of Lee’s breakout performance. The Menomonee, Wis., native smashed her previous record of 14 kills in a match thanks to an ability to put the team on her back when it needed her most. But she can’t do it all on her own, and the offense certainly flows better when more players get involved.
The Nittany Lion middle blockers, Heidi Thelen and Tori Gorrell, who have seen significant time behind junior All-American Haleigh Washington, showed flashes of strong play in Rec Hall over the weekend and can certainly build on their early success when the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge rolls around in Boulder, Colo., this coming Saturday and Sunday. Penn State will need a nice road trip from fellow junior All-American Ali Frantti, who was steady yet didn’t show enough her signature zeal to open the season. Rose also has to iron out his setter woes during practice this week if the team’s going to feel comfortable against a pair of tough opponents in Colorado and No. 9 Stanford.
“When you asked me a week ago, ‘Who’s gonna set?’ I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m trying to find a good setter,'” Rose said. Whether we see Detering or Weiskircher trot out as the starter against the Buffaloes Saturday night at 9:00, the most important aspect of the ongoing competition lies in which player will take the reins of the 13th-ranked Nittany Lion offense and get everyone involved.
“It’s go time,” Lee said. “Coach always talks about it; it’s our decision when we step on the court for practice, whether or not we’re gonna go for the ball, whether or not we’re gonna take big swings, whether or not we’re gonna be there for our teammates, whether or not we’re gonna play together. It’s time and we need to do it.”