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No Sophomore Slump In Sight For Penn State Women’s Volleyball’s Young Core

Once hailed as the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, Penn State women’s volleyball’s sophomore class burst onto the scene last season on a team that went all the way to the Elite Eight.

That group, including right side/outside hitter Jonni Parker, middle blockers Serena Gray and Kaitlyn Hord, and setter Gabby Blossom, took college volleyball by storm, accounting for nearly half of Penn State’s kills (750) and total blocks (337) that season.

Hord amassed an impressive 220 kills on .383 hitting as a freshman, earning Big Ten All-Freshmen and All-Big Ten second-team honors. The AVCA honorable mention All-American also tallied 129 total blocks on the season, the most on the team.

Meanwhile, Parker got off on the right foot by tallying 351 kills on .260 hitting, 90 blocks, and 203 digs. The Casstown, Ohio native was named the 2018 Big Ten Freshman of the Year in addition to earning All-Big Ten first team and AVCA All-America third-team honors.

Gray recorded 177 kills on .325 hitting — an especially impressive mark considering she played in nearly 20 fewer sets than her freshman counterparts. The middle blocker also tallied 119 total blocks and 40 digs in her first season.

Blossom came off the bench in 2018 and backed up then-senior Bryanna Weiskircher. She managed to post 86 assists in a relatively small sample of playing time.

Now, a year later, each player is back and filling a major role for Russ Rose’s Nittany Lions, who own a 7-2 record and No. 5 ranking. Despite setting such a high bar for themselves as freshmen, these players have continued to flourish during their second season.

Kaitlyn Hord

Kaitlyn Hord has arguably been the team’s most dominant player on offense, racking up 84 kills through the first nine matches of the season. She leads the Nittany Lions with 37 total blocks — 14 more than the next closest player — and is averaging 1.23 blocks per set, good for first on the team of qualified players who have played more than one set.

Rose has regularly praised Hord’s efforts this season, noting how her strong presence in the middle gives the Nittany Lions strength on offense and a distinct advantage on defense. And to no one’s surprise, Hord’s teammates are quite fond of her as well.

“I’ve been playing with Kaitlyn since my last year of club [volleyball], so it’s always been a joy getting to be with her on the court and getting to feel her energy, her vibe, getting to block with her,” outside hitter Allyson Cathey said. “It’s just a great feeling being able to play with her, for sure.”

Noah Rogers | Onward State

Hord’s most impressive match of the season came when the Nittany Lions fell to then-No. 1 Stanford in four sets. The middle blocker totaled a match-high 16 kills and a season-high six blocks against the Cardinal.

Hord noted that she’s still working hard to improve many aspects of her game despite her successful tenure so far. She highlighted blocking discipline and hitting control as key areas of focus moving forward this season.

Serena Gray

Fellow middle blocker Serena Gray has turned heads as well. She’s recorded 84 kills in addition to 23 total blocks while accounting for 104.5 points this season.

Lately, Gray has taken steps to improve her attacks. She’s already bumped up her hitting percentage to .456 — a sharp increase from her 2018 mark of .325 — thanks to adjustments on her shots.

“I think the thing [Gray has] improved the most is her vision on the court,” Hord said. “Last year, a lot of us, because we were young, we just kind of hit the ball just to hit the ball. Now, she’s mixing up her shots and she’s incorporating tips. She’s hitting different shots, not just swinging one way or the other, but actually seeing where it’s open on the court and going for it.”

Jonni Parker

A dominant offensive force in her freshman season, Jonni Parker has blossomed into a Swiss Army knife for Rose, amassing 103 kills in addition to 54 digs and 14 blocks so far this year.

Due to the team’s lack of depth and shortcomings on the defensive side of the ball, Parker has been used wherever the team needs her. Currently, she rotates between right side and outside hitter depending on the situation. This hasn’t been a problem thanks to her consistent efforts to make every play count, which has been greatly appreciated by setter Gabby Blossom.

“[Parker’s] smart. She can make a bad set look really good,” Blossom said earlier this season. “It’s a big advantage when you’re a setter and your hitters make you look good on a bad set. She’s definitely one of those people.”

Gabby Blossom

Blossom hasn’t been too shabby herself, either. She’s dished out a whopping 338 assists so far this season, surpassing her total from 2018 by nearly four times. Blossom has also put her solid serving skills to use, recording seven service aces through the first nine matches of the season.

Now with 10 career starts under her belt, Blossom is beginning to flourish in her new full-time role as starting setter. Still, she credits her teammates for making running the team’s offense as easy as possible.

“We probably have two of the best middle [blockers] in the country on our team,” she said. “As a setter, getting to set people like that is very fun. It makes my job really easy. They’re big, they’re up in the air, and they’re easy targets to try and set.”

This quartet of sophomore stars has only gotten better with time, vastly improving their skill sets in their second year with the team.

Leading a team featuring 15 freshmen and sophomores is no easy task, but if there’s a group to do it, it’s Penn State’s young core.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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