This time last year, Penn State spent Thanksgiving week preparing for Minnesota and Wisconsin. This year, they’re doing the exact same thing—but pretty much everything else is different.
For one, instead of shoring up defenses before heading heading enemy territory, the Nittany Lions will welcome the No. 3 Gophers and No. 8 Wisconsin to Rec Hall this weekend.
And secondly—with the exception of junior Kendall White, who is in her third year as the starting libero—every single 2017 starter for Penn State either graduated, got replaced by a newcomer, or is playing a significantly different role this year.
Now for your weekend weather report!— Penn State Women’s Volleyball (@PennStateVBALL) November 19, 2018
We’ve got a Mesoscale Convective Complex on the radar for Rec Hall.
Saturday, 8 pm vs. #8 Wisconsin
“The biggest thing is us figuring out throughout the year what’s the best way to use these players,” assistant coach Dennis Hohenshelt said. “What’s the best way to run our offense? That’s an ongoing battle with us right now.”
The Nittany Lions, who in the final weekend of the regular season last year beat both Minnesota and Wisconsin and earned the top seed into the tournament, are currently 22-6 overall and 13-5 in the Big Ten. In preseason, they lost to Stanford, and during conference play they’ve fallen at the hands of Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue, Nebraska, and Illinois.
But Hohenshelt is confident that the young Lions haven’t played their best volleyball yet. Three freshmen—right side Jonni Parker and middles Kaitlyn Hord and Serena Gray—start, and two more—Gabby Blossom and Jenna Hampton—regularly sub in for back row and serving duties. Then you’ve got North Carolina grad student transfer Taylor Leathand fifth-year senior Nia Reed, who is starting for the first time in her career, on the pins and Bryanna Weiskircher taking over full-time setting duties after running a 6-2 with Abby Detering last fall.
“What you can’t teach these kids in practice is going to Nebraska and playing in front of 7,000 people, going to Illinois and playing in front of 5,000 people,” Hohenshelt said. “Unfortunately we did it late in the season so it was just a different thing for us. We went to Minnesota early, with a lot of people, but Minnesota is more of a subdued crowd, where you get to Huff in Illinois and the kids are right on top of you yelling and screaming at you. I still think every day is a learning experience for us, and we’re not to that point where you go, well, we’ve seen it all.”
Here comes Jonni!— Penn State On BTN (@PennStateOnBTN) November 20, 2018
The @PennStateVBALL player had a monster weekend averaging a team-high 4 kills per set and .500 hitting percentage.
Congrats on earning B1G Freshman of the Week for the third time this season! pic.twitter.com/iCBsJHcVOa
A sweep of Michigan last week provided a glimpse of how good the Nittany Lions can be. They out-blocked the Wolverines nine to six, had 49 digs to Michigan’s 34, and hit .361 with 16 kills from Reed, 13 from Parker, and eight from Hord.
“[Michigan] played Nebraska really tough the weekend before and it was just nice to be really crisp for three sets,” Hohenshelt said. “There was a stretch in game two where we weren’t great, but it wasn’t for very long, so I think for the team’s confidence it was really important.”
Plenty of credit for that impressive hitting percentage has to go to Penn State’s fifth-year senior Weiskircher, who has been key in guiding Penn State’s newbies through their first Big Ten season. After redshirting behind Micha Hancock in 2014, Weiskircher earned the starting spot the next year, then had to share time with Florida transfer Abby Detering the following two seasons, but in her final season of eligibility, the Illinois native is running the show.
“[Bryanna] is the calming influence right now on this team,” Hohenshelt said. “She’s been through it all. She’s been through the battles and she’s the one that can say, ‘It’s ok if we lose a set here. You guys have to battle back.’ And ‘Don’t let these people get to you on the endline. Just do your thing.’”
Transfer Leath, who was named the ACC Player of the Year in 2016, has also brought a veteran mindset to the team. Although the Big Ten is just as new to her as it is to the freshmen, “Granny T,” as the team calls her, simply knows the game.
“[Taylor’s] almost like that second coach or third coach or fourth coach out on the court,” Hohenshelt said. “If we say something to her, she understands, she knows what everyone is supposed to be doing. She’s a really good volleyball player with a really high volleyball IQ, which at times is something we need with all the freshmen.”
To balance out all that calm, cool, and collectedness from Weiskircher and Leath, sometimes, you need a little fire. Enter libero White. The only thing louder than the Indiana native’s celebrations of her teammates’ kills is the roar from the crowd when she scoops up a SportsCenter-Top-10-worthy dig.
“[Kendall] sets the standard for how hard we play, and not just Thursdays, Fridays, or Wednesdays, it’s everyday,” said Hohenshelt. “You should see her Monday at 3:30, she’s the same way she is Friday at 7:30.”
Blocking has been another strength for the Nittany Lions, who rank first in the conference with 2.89 blocks per set. Obviously, credit for that number goes to unbelievably athletic freshmen middles Gray and Hord, who lead the team with 108 and 96 blocks respectively, but Hohenshelt also noted that Leath and Reed’s ability to put up a good block on the opposing right side hitter allows the middles to focus more on the quick or outside attack. And, he added, good serving leads to good blocking, so ace-leaders Hampton, Parker, and Weiskircher should get some credit, too.
Having played Minnesota once already this season, and of course watched hours and hours of film on the Gophers, Penn State knows what to expect on Friday. In the previous meeting, the Big Ten opener, Minnesota won in straight sets, but Penn State played without Reed, who missed four matches at the beginning of the Big Ten season due to an undisclosed injury. Hohenshelt also pointed out that this time around, Penn State’s five freshmen have 18 Big Ten under their belts, instead of zero.
But of course, Minnesota is undefeated in the conference and still has five All-American-caliber hitters in Alexis Hart, Adanna Rollins, Stephanie Samedy, Regan Pittman, and Taylor Morgan, with player-of-the-year candidate Samantha Seliger-Swenson dishing them the ball.
“[Minnesota] has Triple-S running the show and she can do whatever she wants with the ball,” Hohenshelt said. “That’s the thing about Minnesota and Illinois right now that I think is the big difference. They might not be in a good situation off a first contact but after the second contact, between [Illinois setter Jordyn] Poulter and Sam, they are always in a good situation.”
With Wisconsin, the narrative’s a little different. For one, Penn State hasn’t played the Badgers yet this year. But the stats sheet and film of the Badgers’ matches make it clear what’s needed in order to win. You have to stop, or at least slow down, 6-8 sophomore middle blocker Dana Rettke, who has 368 kills and ranks first in the conference with a .430 hitting percentage. She’s also the top blocker in the Big Ten, averaging 1.48 per set.
“Everyone has tried something different,” Hohenshelt said. “Part of it is the serving pressure, make it harder for them to get the ball. [Rettke’s] going to get her kills. No one has stopped her. The key I think is just to try to slow her down and make it as difficult as you can to get her the ball. That has to be step one in any plan.”
Wins in these two matches could go a long way toward securing a better seed for Penn State in the NCAA tournament. When the NCAA selection committee released their preliminary top-10 ranking on November 4, the Nittany Lions ranked eighth, while Minnesota was No. 3 and Wisconsin No. 5.
Especially with previous No. 1 BYU losing its first match of the season to LMU on Tuesday night, nothing is set is stone yet. Finishing the season with two big wins over top-10 teams would be a major statement from Penn State. A statement to the NCAA selection committee and to themselves.
“I don’t know if we’ve played the match yet. That we go, ‘Man, that’s the match,’” Hohenshelt said. “There are stretches where we’ve been really good, like that first set against Illinois. I still think there’s a lot of matches out there for us that we’re going to get better and better.”
Watch the final weekend of Big Ten women’s volleyball right here on FloVolleyball. Nine matches will stream live on FloVolleyball, and you can catch Penn State’s matches with Wisconsin and Minnesota on Big Ten Network.