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Returning Depth Gives Penn State Women’s Volleyball Strength Heading Into Offseason

It’s safe to say Penn State women’s volleyball’s trip to the NCAA Tournament didn’t go as planned. But in a season like no other, that was to be expected.

The Nittany Lions fell to No. 4 seed Texas 3-1 in the tournament’s regional semifinals. Despite some hard-fought volleys and sets, Penn State couldn’t keep up with the Longhorns’ physical attack and staunch net presence. Playing just one match beforehand in the last month probably didn’t help, either.

Regardless, the Nittany Lions now direct their attention toward a shortened offseason before turning the page on a new season in just about four months. With just about every player on the roster set to return and run it back, it’s safe to say Penn State feels confident in its future.

“We’ve learned a lot this season. It’s been a long season, and we’ve seen a lot of growth in a lot of areas,” right side hitter Jonni Parker said Sunday. “I’m excited to see what we can do because we have a lot of returning players. The growth and what we’ve learned and the lessons on and off the court we’ll definitely take into this offseason and into this fall. It’s a quick turnaround.”

Parker certainly isn’t wrong. She, alongside middle blockers Kaitlyn Hord and Serena Gray, will return in the fall to once again serve as the Nittany Lions’ core players. Libero Jenna Hampton and outside hitter Anastasiya Kudryashova, both starters, are set to help anchor Penn State’s lineup again and give the team much-needed stability.

Notably, Penn State doesn’t have a true senior on its current roster. Graduate transfer Hannah Flowers, who appeared in just four games this season, announced Monday she’s finished her career. Flowers’ departure leaves Penn State with a handful of current freshmen, sophomores, and juniors in its locker room.

Such season-to-season consistency should help Penn State settle in faster than it did this spring. Hord said that familiarity will prove useful when trying to form bonds on the court.

“I’m really excited just to work with these guys over the offseason, get stronger, build our chemistry even more, and then come back better than ever,” Hord said.

Next season, the Nittany Lions will especially draw strength from their youngest players. Freshmen outside hitter Annie Cate Fitzpatrick and defensive specialist Maddy Bilinovic, for example, showed bright flashes all season long and made an immediate impact by filling in when Penn State began the season short-handed due to COVID-19 protocols.

“This season, AC and Maddy stepped in as freshmen with big shoes to fill,” Parker said. “I think they did a good job, but also they learned a lot like everyone has. They’re going to grow as players and as people on and off the court. I’m excited to see what their future brings here at Penn State.”

Fitzpatrick’s 156 kills on the season ranked second among the Nittany Lions behind Parker’s team-leading 194. The freshman star also started all 16 matches and led the team with 20 service aces.

Bilinovic, meanwhile, got her feet wet early when filling in at libero while Hampton couldn’t dress. She appeared in all 16 matches and contributed 104 digs throughout the season.

Above all else, Penn State should benefit from a (hopeful) return to some semblance of normalcy next fall.

Playing in the spring was a major hurdle for the Nittany Lions, as was their 420-day offseason dating back to December 2019. Add in daily COVID-19 tests, tight pandemic-related social and travel restrictions, and a modified spring season played without fans, and you’ve got yourself a wholly unorthodox volleyball product.

But through it all, some Nittany Lions, including Parker, feel that the added adversity will only make them stronger moving forward.

“I can say that for teams across the country, their resiliency to grow through this season is phenomenal,” Parker said. “The things that teams had to overcome, the stops and starts, the protocols, everything — kudos to them for what we’ve been [through]. I think the resiliency from this season is going to make volleyball very interesting in the future, and I can’t wait to see it.”

Head coach Russ Rose, who’s certainly seen it all over his expansive 42-year career with the Nittany Lions, gave credit to the NCAA for putting on a tournament and catering to student-athletes to conclude a challenging season.

“It was a great opportunity to play a championship. I think the people here in Omaha did a wonderful job putting it together,” Rose said. “The NCAA, in my opinion, just did a fantastic job in doing everything they could to provide a quality experience for the student-athletes and the teams in a year where it was really next to impossible. There was no blueprint for how they could put it together, and I think, to this point, they’ve just done an exceptional job.”

With their postseason run over, the Nittany Lions should use the next four months to rest up, train, and focus. But make no mistake — the team expects to restock and reload come August.

“I’m really excited to see what our future holds and come back better than ever next year,” Hord said.

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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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