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Middle Blockers Fuel Penn State Women’s Volleyball’s Dominant Weekend

For the first time in forever, Penn State women’s volleyball looked like its old self this weekend.

The No. 12 Nittany Lions completed back-to-back sweeps over Rutgers Friday and Saturday night to improve to 7-5 on the season. Although the team played well as a whole, Penn State’s middle blockers stepped up and showed out to fuel a much-needed pair of victories.

The Nittany Lions’ matches were largely headlined by Kaitlyn Hord, who amassed 20 kills, hit .517, and posted nine total blocks on the weekend. In her career against the Scarlet Knights, Hord’s racked up 38 kills and just a single hitting error.

Naturally, head coach Russ Rose believes she’s taken great strides to improve her swings midway through her Penn State career.

“I think probably hitting [has developed the most]. She was always a great natural blocker. She’s gotten stronger, and I think her range has gotten better,” Rose said Friday night. “I’m sure she would also have even more range if she were playing with a bigger setter, a taller setter.”

Rose added recruiting Emily Oerther, who’s about an inch taller than setter Gabby Blossom, was largely centered on her height and “higher contact point,” which could benefit taller middles like Hord. Oerther played heavily throughout Penn State’s season-opening series with Illinois while Blossom and a handful of Nittany Lions weren’t available.

Serena Gray, who often starts alongside Hord at the net, also showed out against Rutgers. Her best performance in the series came Friday night when she totaled eight kills on .700 hitting, four blocks, and an ace. She followed that up with five kills on nine swings Saturday night.

“She’s a really physical human being. She’s incredibly bright. I think she’s at her best when she’s just kind of going with the flow of the event and not trying to analyze everything,” Rose said Saturday night. “Our best volleyball is played when Serena is playing at her highest level. She’s an incredible talent, and I know when she’s playing at her best, we’re at our best.”

Despite some match-to-match inconsistencies, Hord and Gray remain cornerstones for Penn State. Among qualified hitters with at least 25 swings, the two middle blockers rank second and third on the team by hitting .392 and .259, respectively. They’re preceded only by Allie Holland, a fellow middle blocker who feels she’s learned a lot from the dynamic duo.

“Had a little nervous energy going on, but I’m learning from the best, Serena and Kait,” Holland said after making her first-ever start and Penn State debut last month. “I mean, I’ve been their biggest fan since I was 15 years old. It’s an honor to play here and to play with those middles, and I’m ready to get back this weekend.”

Although she’s played sparingly as just a true freshman, Holland subbed in against Rutgers Saturday night and recorded one kill on two swings. Still, she’s shown enough on the court to impress the locker room leaders she looks up to.

“Allie is a monster blocker,” Hord said in February. “She’s huge. She’s very confident in her skills, which is something great coming from a freshman. She’s a very good blocker.”

Penn State’s middle clearly provided a spark over the weekend, but they weren’t the only key contributors. Right side hitter Jonni Parker racked up 18 kills, six blocks, and two aces against the Scarlet Knights. In doing so, she crossed key milestones of 900 career kills, 500 career digs, and 200 career blocks. Freshman Annie Cate Fitzpatrick posted 18 kills and four aces, too.

Outside hitter Anastasiya Kudryashova also played well. Facing her former team, she contributed 12 kills on .288 hitting while adding four blocks. Following Saturday’s match, Kudryashova noted how Rutgers has improved since she transferred more than a year ago.

“I’m really glad that I decided to go to Penn State. I think that Rutgers improved a lot,” Kudryashova said. “They’ve got really good players. They’ve got new coaches. They have a real perspective to be better and play better, but I’m just grateful that I’m at Penn State.”

Moving forward, Penn State will travel north to East Lansing for a two-match series with Michigan State that’ll begin Friday, March 19. From there, the Nittany Lions will face challenging opponents like No. 1 Wisconsin and No. 4 Nebraska to close out the regular season and, hopefully, secure an NCAA Tournament bid.

The path seems daunting, especially as Penn State sits in seventh place in the Big Ten’s standings. However, if the Nittany Lions’ strong middle blockers lead the way, Rose’s team will have a great chance to compete on the national stage.

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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 with distinction 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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