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420 Days Later, Penn State Women’s Volleyball ‘Amped Up’ To Take The Court Again

It’s been more than a year since Penn State women’s volleyball last appeared on the national stage — 420 days, to be exact.

Following a stinging Elite Eight sweep by Stanford in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, the Nittany Lions were driven to train and regain strength over the offseason. Back then, they didn’t know that downtime would stretch a few months longer than planned thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and a postponed fall season.

But now, with a season opener against Illinois just hours away, Penn State is stoked to finally get back in the swing of things.

“Honestly, when we first heard we didn’t have a fall season, it was a little heartbreaking,” right side Jonni Parker said. “But after that, we were like, ‘Well, let’s use this time to get better. Every day, let’s get better, let’s find something new to work on.’ Ever since then, it’s been excitement…Now that it’s getting even closer, everybody’s getting amped up even more.”

Penn State’s offseason hasn’t been without its challenges. The team is constantly wearing face masks, taking COVID-19 tests, and training to get back into tip-top shape before embarking on an unorthodox spring season.

New precautions have been particularly challenging for Parker, who’s worn hearing aids since she was 4 years old due to a condition that limits her hearing to about 40% in her left ear and 45% in her right. More traditional face masks that loop around the ears, for example, can interfere with the devices, and a lack of visible mouths could get in the way of lip-reading.

As one of the Nittany Lions’ most vocal leaders, though, Parker hasn’t let an unexpected challenge slow her down.

“Honestly, it hasn’t been that bad. I just have to kind of pay attention to what mask I wear,” Parker said. “The gaiters have been great. They don’t sit on my ear, so they don’t affect my hearing aids as much. But there are some times — like if I were to wear a normal cloth mask — if the straps are thicker, they sit right on top of my hearing aids, and that sometimes causes difficulties.”

Without a single true senior on its roster, Penn State welcomed eight newcomers to Happy Valley over the offseason. Although new health protocols put the new additions in a tough spot, setter Gabby Blossom believes the team’s bond is stronger than ever.

“I think one of the good things, if you can say, from COVID is we got a long time to bond before we go out and play a game,” Blossom said. “The ‘COVID bubble’ really makes it that we’re just together and it’s our team. I think it was really nice that we got to know people really well in a short amount of time.”

Penn State faced another unexpected challenge when it paused all team-related activities in late January due to an undisclosed number of positive COVID-19 tests within the program. Head coach Russ Rose feels the outbreak, coupled with a delayed start to a delayed season, provided a learning opportunity for his team.

“I think there’s a lot of frustration, but that’s how life is. I think we all have to recognize that all we can do is try and control the things we can control,” Rose said. “We’re not going to be the only program that’s had to go through those challenges to date and I think probably others will experience it as well.”

Although a fall season never transpired, Penn State didn’t stop training throughout the summer and fall. Rose said he and his staff maintained a workout regimen that doesn’t differ from a typical season, although it was often adjusted to avoid overtraining.

“[The offseason] was kind of nice because you got to spend a little extra time fine-tuning things that you wouldn’t normally get to and working on different connections with different players,” Parker said. “Since we did lose seniors last year like Kendall [White], Tori [Gorrell], Kristin [Krause], Keeton [Holcomb], and [Emily Sciorra], it was nice to spend a little extra time getting to play next to new people.”

As excited as the team is to return to action, it knows it’ll have its work cut out for it. Big Ten teams will take part in a grueling 11-week schedule against only league opponents — a tall task when competing in one of, if not the, best conference in college volleyball. Entering the season, six of the Big Ten’s teams are nationally ranked, and four, including No. 9 Penn State, landed in the top 10.

Another wrinkle in the schedule? Nine of Penn State’s 10 planned series come on back-to-back days, an uncommon scheduling tactic typically reserved for invitationals or the NCAA Tournament. Rose believes an unrelenting schedule will benefit older, battle-tested teams this spring.

“Ten [weeks] has usually been the most we’ve ever played, but the biggest challenge is that back-to-back component,” Rose said. “I think the veteran teams are certainly going to have a great advantage over the teams that are going to be breaking in younger players, because the younger players are going to have a learning curve just on the process of learning how to play, learning the nomenclature, learning how you rest and how you play on the road and how you study.”

Luckily, the Nittany Lions won’t need to worry about combatting fearsome Big Ten crowds chock-full of diehard fans. The conference’s current health and safety plans prevent fans from attending matches this season.

However, they’ll also be without the support of their own dedicated followers. And although Rec Hall may be filled with cardboard cutouts, Penn State is preparing to adjust for the change in energy.

“It’s going to be weird being in Rec Hall without the crowd and the band and just everyone who makes it so special for us,” Blossom said. “It makes us have to control our own energy. Something we talk a lot about at practice is there’s not going to be the 5,000 fans at Rec Hall who are giving us energy and motivation. It’s going to have to be us.”

But despite the obstacles, at the end of the day, Penn State is simply grateful for a chance to compete once again.

“It’s been a challenging period of time, and it’s great that these individuals even get an opportunity to play,” Rose said. “We’re appreciative of that opportunity and hope that the players embrace it and play really hard.”

Penn State will open its season when it hosts Illinois on Friday, February 5. First serve is set for 9 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

By day, Matt is a senior majoring in journalism. By night, he's Onward State's managing editor. He's a huge Philadelphia sports fan, fantasy football lover, and washed-up drummer hailing from Collegeville, Pa. The quickest way to his heart is Margherita pizza and "Arrested Development" quotes. Follow him on Twitter @mattdisanto_ if you hate yourself or email Matt at [email protected] if you hate him.

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