‘Hot & Cold’ Serving Plagues Penn State Volleyball’s Uncharacteristic Start To Season

Sitting at 5-5 on the season, No. 12 Penn State women’s volleyball has found itself in relatively uncharted territory.

The traditionally dominant Nittany Lions have looked quite vulnerable about midway through an entirely unorthodox season. With only eight regular-season matches remaining, Penn State will need to step up its play if it hopes to keep its NCAA Tournament appearance streak (read: literally every one in history) intact.

One common theme so far this season has been Penn State’s shaky presence at the service line. Despite some fantastic aces and great service pressure, unforced errors have been a thorn in the Nittany Lions’ sides.

“I think our serving has been hot and cold. We’ve had some matches that have been just surprisingly bad,” head coach Russ Rose said Tuesday. “I think our serving has been OK. I don’t think it’s great. It certainly hasn’t been our strongest trait. I’m not sure anything would be our strongest trait, but we’ve had opportunities to win. If you can serve tough and serve well, you always have opportunities.”

Serving over Penn State’s last week has been particularly rough. The Nittany Lions committed 14 service errors against then-No. 11 Purdue last Friday, leading to a tough 3-1 loss to the Boilermakers.

Rose noted poor serving at the end of sets in that Friday night loss certainly hurt Penn State’s chances, especially when the team led late into a few frames. Still, he said he’s got lots of confidence in his back-row players’ abilities.

“It’s not like they ever do it intentionally, and I always kind of counter with, ‘Hey, I wouldn’t put them in if I didn’t think that they could do it,’” Rose said. “If people practice something every day, I think you should feel confident and skilled in what you’re doing. But sometimes people are their own worst enemies, so they have to work on getting those skills together themselves.”

Right side hitter Jonni Parker, who’s typically known for her booming jump serve, believes the team needs to get more aggressive at the line to break out of its serving funk.

“I think we’re a little hesitant when we go back there behind the serving line. I liked to see this past weekend, [Annie Cate Fitzpatrick] came out and ripped her topspin. She did really well with that,” Parker said. “That’s also the high-risk, high-reward type situation, and I think it was a very high reward for us. We need to be a little bit more aggressive behind the serving line. If we can’t be aggressive, we need to be a little bit more strategic. We can always be better.”

“Aggressive” is certainly an apt term to describe Fitzpatrick’s presence at the line so far this year. The outstanding freshman currently leads Penn State with 11 aces and 22 serving errors on the season. Fitzpatrick’s three aces against Purdue last Saturday helped spark a much-needed bounce-back Penn State win.

All things considered, the Nittany Lions served rather well against Purdue. Heading into the series, the Boilermakers allowed opposing teams just 23 aces in their 12 previous matches. Penn State aced Purdue 10 times in Friday’s loss and five times in Saturday’s win.

Over Penn State’s rather atypical offseason, a handful of Nittany Lions, including middle blocker Serena Gray, said they specifically worked on serving while stuck at home.

“During the pandemic when you can’t really play with anyone or practice with anyone, one thing you can do is serve, because that’s one of the only socially distanced volleyball activities you can really do,” Gray said.

With nine aces under her belt, Gray is currently tied for second on the team alongside Parker and setter Gabby Blossom.

Moving forward, ironing out inconsistencies and self-inflicted wounds will be key for the Nittany Lions as they attempt to gear up for another postseason run.

“Yeah, we haven’t played another team for a while, when we first started the season, but we’ve been playing for the past year together, and we should be a little bit more consistent on our side of the net,” Parker said. “I think that’s where we’re struggling, in particular, right now. I think that’s what needs to improve the most is our side of the net, what we can control in order to play our game and Penn State volleyball.”

Penn State will return to action Friday night to begin a two-match series with Rutgers. First serve from Rec Hall is set for 7 p.m.

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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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