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Young, Yet Experienced Penn State Women’s Volleyball Remains ‘100%’ Focused On National Championship

As Penn State women’s volleyball approaches the first game of its 2019 season, questions remain about how a roster stacked with young talent will fare against some of Division I’s toughest competition.

The No. 8 Nittany Lions begin their 2019 season this Friday against Hofstra. Head coach Russ Rose, now in his 41st season with the Nittany Lions, is managing a team filled to the brim with inexperienced players. Fifteen of the team’s 20 players are either freshmen or sophomores, so while working with such youth provides an exciting opportunity, there also comes a degree of challenges, too.

“There were a lot of freshmen last year that had a lot of responsibility, a lot of weight to carry, but there were also three fifth-year seniors that were on the floor and all three of those players were offered professional contracts,” Rose said Wednesday. “It’s certainly a challenge replacing people who have a lot of experience.”

Despite a surplus of young talent, Rose believes Penn State may need to rely even more heavily on its starters due to an apparent lack of depth.

“I don’t think our depth is very good this year,” Rose said. “I thought our depth was a little better last year. I think that our starters are the people we have to depend on and the people who aren’t playing right now have a long way to go to contribute at the level we hope to play at.”

Rose noted in the conference that he’s uncertain if he’ll be able to overcome some of the roster’s challenges this season due to the Nittany Lions’ rigorous Big Ten schedule. Things won’t get easier for Penn State in non-conference match-ups either. The team will take on Oregon and reigning-national champion Stanford before opening Big Ten play in late September.

Rose’s concerns are certainly warranted. Penn State lost a great deal of star talent to graduation last spring. These players, including outside hitters Nia Reed and Taylor Leath, filled large roles for the Nittany Lions that are now left vacant. Considering the team’s current state, Rose will turn to the program’s young-yet-experienced players to act as cornerstones and support the Nittany Lions throughout the season.

One of the Nittany Lions’ veteran leaders will be redshirt senior middle blocker Tori Gorrell, who totaled 74 kills and started every set for the Nittany Lions’ 2018 NCAA Tournament run, which ended against Stanford in December. Rose believes he may shift Gorrell around the court to reflect the team’s needs throughout the season.

Gorrell played sparingly for the Nittany Lions last year up until the postseason. The middle blocker was on the court for just five sets in the month of November and ended the regular season with just 74 kills and 42 total blocks. However, Rose expects her to become a versatile weapon for his program in the upcoming season.

Gorrell approaches the net for a kill against Eastern Kentucky.

Rose also expects a great deal out of sophomore defensive specialist Jenna Hampton, who had a huge impact off the bench as a freshman in 2018. Hampton will likely train under star libero Kendall White this year, as she’s poised to take the latter’s place once White graduates this spring.

“Jenna [Hampton] is a person who played every game last year and I expect her to continue to contribute at a high level,” Rose said. “She plays hard and has a good feeling for the game, but there are some people that we need a lot from.”

Sophomore setter Gabi Blossom is slated to step into a full-time role with the Nittany Lions following the departure of veteran Bryanna Weiskircher, who graduated last spring. The pair worked closely together in 2018 to help Blossom step into the role comfortably.

After playing in 95 sets over 34 matches in 2018, Blossom should have little trouble turning up her production in a full-time role. The setter recorded 99 digs and 86 assists in her freshman season, and will certainly have opportunities to improve upon the marks throughout the upcoming season.

Rose continued praising his players when he moved on to Kaitlyn Hord, who led the Nittany Lions with a team-high hitting percentage of .383 in 2018 — a mark that ranked fourth in the Big Ten. Hord also recorded 222 kills and 129 total blocks as a freshman. The head coach only expects bigger things from the Lexington, Kentucky product heading into the season.

“Kaitlyn is a really, really talented athlete,” Rose said. “I think, certainly in Kaitlyn’s case, that the stronger she gets, the greater her contributions will be at the level we’re playing at. I think she’s an especially strong net player that has improved a lot.”

Rose also expects right side Jonni Parker to put the team on her back this season after bursting onto the scene as a freshman. The 2018 third-team AVCA All-American led the team in total points with 421.5 and tacked on an impressive 203 digs on defense. Her presence gave the Nittany Lions a much-needed boost throughout all of last season, and she’s now prepared to contribute in any way possible.

“I think in the end, to me, the most important thing is when players do what the team needs them to do,” Rose added. “That’s more important than putting an asterisk next to a player’s name for a position they play. [Parker] wants to win, and I’m a big fan of that sort of behavior.”

Parker totaled 90.0 blocks and 351 kills in 2018.

Following wildly successful rookie campaigns, Hord and Parker are eager to act as leaders in Penn State’s young locker room. They’ll be responsible for showing incoming talent the ropes and mentoring them as they navigate one of the most competitive conferences in college volleyball.

“I think we’re really excited [to be leaders],” Parker said. “As coach said earlier, 15 of our 20 players are either freshmen or sophomores. You don’t see that a lot, but with our experience and our sophomore class last year, we all feel like we’re taking on a bit of a leadership role, especially with our younger players.”

After practicing against themselves for months, the Nittany Lions are itching for the chance to go head-to-head against some outside competition. Rose brought in some men’s volleyball players to facilitate competition throughout the summer, but nothing beats the real thing.

“I’m very excited to step back onto the court and do something that [my teammates and I] love,” Hord said. “Like Jonni said, I think we’re pretty confident and we’re just ready to see how we’ll stack up against other teams because we’ve been playing against each other all through the summer. We’ve kind of gotten used to what everyone’s doing, so we want to see some new competition. I think we’re ready, and I’m really excited.”

Now poised to step into a leadership role in one of the most decorated programs in all of college volleyball, Parker wants to accomplish only one thing in 2019.

“A national championship. One-hundred percent.”

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt is a junior majoring in journalism and is Onward State's managing editor. He's a huge Philadelphia sports fan, fantasy football aficionado, and washed-up drummer hailing from Collegeville, Pa. The quickest way to his heart is Margherita pizza. He loves Seinfeld, is really into video games, and would wipe the floor with you in Halo. Follow him on Twitter @mattdisanto_ for bad sports takes or email him at [email protected]

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