Heidi Thelen’s Toughness, Team-First Mentality Shine Through
Heidi Thelen has taken her game up a notch for Penn State women’s volleyball as a senior, using her versatility to provide an extra element to the team.
The Nittany Lions were desperate for production on the right side last season, prompting Russ Rose to move Thelen from middle blocker to a spot she didn’t have any experience playing, but she didn’t blink.
“We needed her on the right side. I don’t think it was a natural position for her, and I thought she had some challenges with that,” Rose said. “She was willing to change positions to benefit the team and that’s a nice trait to have in your mindset.”
Rose said Thelen has been more “assertive and aware of what the needs are” of the position this season, starting 15 of the team’s 21 matches. She’s currently fourth on the team in kills with 114 and is playing arguably the best volleyball of her career right now.
“I thought Heidi was especially good last weekend,” Rose said. “Those two matches [against Purdue and Indiana] were probably the best two matches that she played since she came to Penn State. I was really pleased with how she played and competed.”
Thelen tallied a career-high 14 kills versus the Boilermakers in front of a sold-out Holloway Gymnasium, then followed it up by connecting on seven of her eight swings the following night in Bloomington.
She was quick to credit Penn State’s middle blockers, Haleigh Washington and Tori Gorrell, for her success on the team’s trip to Indiana over the weekend.
“Tori and Haleigh were holding the middles a lot, so I had a bunch of one-on-one opportunities. Ali [Frantti] did a great job swinging away like she normally does,” Thelen said. “Our setters opening up the offense for all of our hitters more than just the couple key attackers was beneficial.”
Thelen said volunteer assistant coach Dennis Hohenshelt, who spent 16 years at Penn State coaching the men’s and women’s teams before taking the head job at Virginia, has been a real asset in his return to Rose’s staff, particularly from a blocking perspective. She often bounces ideas back and forth with Washington and Gorrell during practice, too.
“Haleigh is a very smart player. She always helps me out. Tori, she’s just relaxed, she’s fun. We get along really well. They’re both awesome players and awesome teammates,” Thelen said. “We’ve just been really focusing on being big, staying balanced, and reading the play.”
The Edgewood, KY, native has worked hard over the last four years to refine the extensive talent she brought with her to State College, and it’s clearly paying off in her final collegiate campaign.
“I think she’s developed in a lot of areas,” Rose said. “She’s gotten stronger, she’s gotten tougher. That toughness can show itself in different ways. She plays when she’s a little dinged up.”
What does she miss most about home when she’s away at school?
“My family and my dog, honestly. It’s a cool place but there’s not much to do there. I live close to Cincinnati, so going to Reds games and Bengals games is fun.”
The biobehavioral health major knows what it takes to win it all, as she’s one of five seniors on the roster with a ring from the team’s seventh national championship in 2014. That title run and the subsequent Sweet 16 ousters of the last two years will only help her be better prepared to tackle whatever comes her way this postseason.
“Being Penn State, I think there’s always a target on our back,” she said. “Not many people like us because we’ve had such a good history and tradition behind the program.”
Thelen and the top-ranked Nittany Lions (20-1) head to Champaign Saturday night, hoping to extend their winning streak to 11 matches in a row against Illinois, a team they swept earlier this season in Rec Hall.