Women’s Volleyball Rounding Into Big Ten Form
After dropping three straight matches for the first time since 2002-03, Russ Rose’s Nittany Lions have started to find the on-court chemistry that so often sets Penn State apart from the rest of the women’s college volleyball landscape.
The Nittany Lions have improved to 8-3 heading into Big Ten play thanks to back-to-back tournament victories at the Syracuse Classic and Penn State Invitational in Rec Hall this past weekend, in large part fueled by a more balanced offense orchestrated by junior setter Abby Detering. The Florida transfer has really come into her own and broadcasts an infectious confidence while spreading the ball around to her new teammates.
“I don’t know how ready we are to go into the Big Ten, but when we were 2-3, I didn’t know how soon we were gonna be ready to go into the Big Ten, either. We feel a little bit better about how we’re playing,” Rose said following the team’s sweep of Clemson Saturday night.
He touched on the importance of having a starting setter in place and how the early season battle between Detering and Bryanna Weiskircher made it somewhat difficult for the team to play up to its lofty standards without a mainstay at the position.
“We lost to three teams that are ranked in the Top 20, and we didn’t play great against those teams. The players wanna do better and I think that passing makes a big difference. I think Abby’s becoming a little more comfortable. In two of the three losses, I was changing setters back and forth.”
Penn State’s received big-time contributions from a handful of fresh faces along the back line in non-conference play, as freshmen Kendall White and Emily Sciorra have shown plenty of speed on the defensive end and strong composure from the service line in their first few colleges matches. White was named Rose’s starting libero upon her arrival and the Indianapolis native has been nothing short of a revelation, making incredibly difficult digs look routine each time she takes the court.
“I’m way more upbeat on the freshmen back-row players than some of the older kids right now,” Rose said. “I think they’re a breath of fresh air, they’re quick, and they don’t know what they don’t know.
“When we can get some back-row kids to come in and not make mistakes, then it really gives us some opportunities to compensate for the fact that we’re not as physical as a lot of teams. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
Junior middle blocker Haleigh Washington has two Big Ten regular seasons tucked in her back pocket, so she knows as well as anyone on the roster — conference play can make or break your tournament chances. The top three teams in the nation right now — Nebraska, Minnesota, and Wisconsin — all represent the Big Ten, and five more programs are among the Top 25, including the 18th-ranked Nittany Lions. “We have to take practices way more seriously,” Washington said. “It’s gotta be every day we’re getting in and getting better, because the Big Ten is no joke.”
Washington’s fellow middle blockers Tori Gorrell and Heidi Thelen have made tremendous strides this season in terms of stepping into important roles. Rose mentioned he likes the blocking spark Gorrell provides at the net, as the Oakville, Ontario, native leads Washington by three for the team-high in total blocks with 47. “Tori’s a really competitive kid,” Rose said. “I think she’s gonna be undersized in a lot of matchups, but I think she blocked well against Stanford, so I don’t think she’s afraid of competition.”
She’s playing from a slightly different perspective this season, but the move hasn’t fazed the junior one bit. In fact, she’s one of Penn State’s most versatile players with 68 kills, 25 blocks, and 11 digs. “I actually like the right side a lot,” Thelen said. “It’s different; timing’s different, blocking’s different. It’s a good different, it’s what the team needs.”
Rose pointed out one shot he especially noticed Thelen’s poise, as she made a split-second decision in mid-air against the Tigers only a veteran could. “I thought that one ball where she hit high-deep over the top into the corner is a shot that’s demonstrating that she’s learning some of the different things you can do,” Rose said. “I think we have a lot of players that are very patterned where they hit the ball, and the Big Ten is a very non-forgiving conference to patterns, so seeing her [hit] that shot was a really positive thing from where I was sitting.”
Penn State opens conference play Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. on the road at Rutgers. The match will air live on the Big Ten Network.