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Penn State Women’s Volleyball Newcomers Already Flashing Potential

Although some have played only two matches in a Nittany Lions uniform, Penn State women’s volleyball’s freshest faces are already turning some heads.

The team got off to a hot start on the season with two wins over a talented Illinois team — a convincing 3-1 victory and a stunning 3-2 comeback triumph. The short-handed Nittany Lions, who were without five players during the series, consistently relied on younger athletes to step up and contribute.

The season-opening weekend was easily headlined by outside hitter Annie Cate Fitzpatrick, who racked up 30 kills and paced the team in both matches. The highly touted freshman also contributed 26 digs over her first two starts.

“Coming in as a freshman, I thought she did well on the floor and showed what she could do well,” junior right side Jonni Parker said following Penn State’s opening match. “She mixed it up with her shots on the floor, stayed aggressive with her swings, and was all over the place in the back row trying to make some plays. I was really proud of what she did tonight.”

Fitzpatrick (center, hands raised) celebrates with her teammates following a Penn State point.

Head coach Russ Rose praised Fitzpatrick’s energy and passion for the game but noted the youthful hitter undoubtedly has ways she can flesh out her game.

“She’ll learn. She’s always going to be an undersized outside hitter, so she’s going to play hard,” Rose said. “That’s one of the things she does. She likes to take big swings. She just has to learn to take smart swings when she’s playing against a big block and she’s out of system.”

The Nittany Lions were notably missing setter Gabby Blossom and defensive specialist Jenna Hampton, who didn’t dress for either match. Although their absences were clearly felt, they freed up space for Emily Oerther and Maddy Bilinovic to step up and shine.

Oerther, while not a freshman, rarely took the court in 2019 and played in only three sets. This weekend, though, the sophomore started both matches and dished out 82 assists, 20 digs, and six kills.

Her productivity in just this sample size is pretty notable, especially when filling in unexpectedly. However, Oerther’s unique size (about an inch taller than Blossom) and form presented a few challenges for Penn State’s lead hitters.

“It’s definitely a change because they do have very different setting styles, but we were able to get in the gym and work on some things and just keep a positive attitude because it’s something different,” middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord said Tuesday. “Not getting frustrated and all that. Emily did a great job. I was very proud of her for coming in and showing exactly what she’s capable of, which is some great things.”

Serena Gray, Hord’s partner in crime in the middle, noted Oerther “proved herself well” over the series against Illinois.

Bilinovic, meanwhile, filled in nicely for Hampton, who’s likely to become Penn State’s regular libero upon her return. This weekend, though, Bilinovic made quite a case for herself.

The freshman defensive specialist surely turned some heads by racking up 32 digs and seven assists. Bilinovic’s first viral highlight came Saturday on a dig…made with her foot!

After conquering some first-match jitters, Bilinovic said she was thrilled to finally take the court and face a challenge with her new team.

“I’m not going to lie, there were a couple nerves at the beginning, but my teammates helped me push through that,” Bilinovic said Friday night. “I was just happy to be out there, make some plays, do whatever I can to help my team out.”

Even though Bilinovic might’ve been nervous against Illinois, her teammates said she hasn’t been shy in practice. Hord likened her personality to “a little fireball,” while Parker raved about her offseason etiquette.

“Maddy’s great. She came in guns blazing. She went after everything,” Parker said. “She was talking all the time on the court and was always getting extra reps — willing to help with anybody, coming in extra. She’s a great player and is always talking in the gym. You can always hear her no matter where she’s at on or off the court. She’s a great defender and passer and I can’t wait to see what she does this season.”

While Hampton is expected to start at libero upon her return, Rose noted Bilinovic’s breakthrough weekend certainly provides the team with defensive options moving forward.

“I think it bodes well for Maddy that she played so well,” Rose said following Friday’s victory over the Illini. “Certainly when Jenna’s healthy, we’ll have two people who can play the libero position and the defensive position.”

Anastasiya Kudryashova rounded out Penn State’s starting lineup over the weekend. She transferred from Rutgers over the offseason but didn’t take long to kick the rust off.

Kudryashova, who hails from Novosibirsk, Russia, tallied 22 kills on .300 hitting over the two-match series, adding six digs, a block, and an assist.

Kudryashova (right) sets up a serve against Illinois.

“I haven’t met many Russian people, but Nas is very…she’s funny. She’s a different breed, that’s for sure,” Hord said. “One thing I like about her game is she’s so high. She just hits high hands all day and that’s something that you can’t really teach. It just comes with the frame you’re given. She’s tall, but she’s got very good control over her body like we were able to see this past weekend. She can pass, she can serve, so she’s not just a big kid.”

Penn State will likely need these newcomers’ contributions as it embarks on a tough Big Ten schedule this season. With matches against No. 5 Minnesota on tap this weekend and Blossom and Hampton’s availabilities up in the air, the Nittany Lions will need all the depth they can get.

No. 8 Penn State will begin its series against the Golden Gophers on Saturday, February 13. First serve in the two-match series is set for 8 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt is a junior majoring in journalism and 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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