Catching Up With Former Penn State Star Jalen Penrose

USA Volleyball recently released its updated list of international transfers. The American governing body processed a record 440 transfers as of Feb. 1, granting U.S. athletes permission to compete in overseas leagues.

Among the 113 American men currently on the rosters of international professional teams, most volleyball fans would recognize the names of current national teamers Matt Anderson, Taylor Sander and Erik Shoji. 

But what about Scott Fifer? Jakob Lorscheider? Relyea Speller? It’s worth noting that there is an abundance of Americans competing overseas who are worth following and supporting, even if they don’t don a red, white and blue jersey every summer. 

FloVolleyball recently caught up with one such athlete. 

Jalen Penrose, a native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, played at Penn State from 2014 to 2018, winning two EIVA titles in that time and advancing to the NCAA semifinals in 2015. 

As a senior, the 6-foot-8 opposite tallied 0.59 aces per set (54 total), a number which ranked No. 1 in the EIVA and No. 2 nationally and earned him the title of Off the Block/Springbak National Server of the Year. 

For his first professional season, Penrose signed with VK ČEZ Karlovarsko in Czech Republic. The reigning Czech league champs are currently 14-6 and fourth in the standings. Karlovarsko is also competing in the CEV Champions League, where it is currently 0-5 heading into the final match of group stage versus Azimut Leo Shoes Modena on Feb. 27. 

Keep reading to find out more about Penrose’s life on and off the volleyball court in Czech Republic. 

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

FloVolleyball: When you found out you were going to Czech Republic for your first pro season, what was your reaction?

Jalen Penrose: I was excited because I was excited just to play for any team. But then on top of that, I knew some of my alumni and I knew a couple other guys who had played there. Unfortunately my college career wasn’t exactly up to what I wanted it to be, but it was fairly good, so to get a chance to actually go play on a professional team was pretty exciting. 

Flo: What was it about your college career that you feel like was left unaccomplished? 

JP: I would have loved to win a national championship and to get some personal accolades, but personal stuff doesn’t mean much to me provided we win as a team. That’s more my motto than anything, even if it means me taking a backseat and not playing. If we’re winning, then I’m happy. 

Flo: Have you managed to learn any Czech? 

JP: I speak very, very little. It’s one of the hardest languages in the world, I think it’s like third or fourth or something like that. So it’s pretty hard, but I understand a good amount of it, and I know a little bit to speak. 

Flo: What teammates have you grown the closest with? 

JP: I am close with the Australian guy [Trent O’Dea] because we have a good amount of mutual friends. One of his national teammates played at UC Irvine, so that was kind of like the mutual grounds of how we founded our foundation of where we’re at today. 

I’m actually most close with our second setter [Matyas Dzavornok]. He’s 17, which is funny because he acts like he’s like 24 or 25. Sometimes I act how his age is and he acts how my age is. So it’s just funny how we clicked and we’re pretty close. 

Flo: How is the team doing in the Czech league? 

JP: I think currently, we’re in fourth place, which is, I mean no one wants to be fourth, everyone wants to be first, but it’s not bad. We had a couple rough patches and I think we’re kind of figuring it out again. We started I think 8-0 the first eight games and we were on a huge wrecking ball, taking care of other teams, and then we kind of hit a slump.

Flo: What has the Champions League experience been like? 

JP: Who did we play last in the Champions League? We played Zaska and we tried some new things, we played more with our younger guys, me included, and we actually hung in there a lot better than we did any other time that we’ve play any of those big name teams. Which was a promising sign because I feel like in playoffs, Coach wants to know that if the first outside or the first opposite or the first setter, first whoever, gets tired and isn’t performing well that he can call upon us younger guys.

Flo: What’s your role on the team? 

JP: I’m the second opposite. Whenever either we’re up a lot and we’re beating the other team then I’ll come in and just kind of close out the set. But even times when [the first opposite Filip Rejlek is] playing well and Coach thinks that maybe there needs to be like an energy boost on the court or something, maybe he might throw me in.

Flo: What have been the big differences between playing at Penn State and playing for this pro team?

JP: I mean clearly everyone [at Penn State] could speak English pretty damn well. But I guess the biggest thing is there’s a huge difference in the staff of a college. We have three assistant coaches, or two at least, and here I have one, along with the head coach, so that’s different.

But the play for volleyball specifically is a little bit better here than it is in college because a lot more players have better ball control. I think that’s one of the biggest differences between college and professional. Like I said, I haven’t been to any other countries and played many other teams in other countries, so it’s hard to say for other countries. But at least for here, the biggest thing is ball control. 

Flo: Have you seen your own ball control improve as a result of playing in that environment? 

JP: Definitely. I know defense isn’t one of my strongest suits. I try to keep the ball off the floor as best as possible. Sometimes it’s hard because you have guys hitting the ball at, I don’t know, 80 miles per hours or 100 miles per hour, so it’s like, you just kind of have to react, but I definitely have seen improvements.

That’s just something that I’ve been trying to take pride in more of, too, because I know offensively and serving and blocking I’m pretty solid, and I can hang with the best of them, I think. But defense is one of the things where if I can probably do better, I can help the team convert one or two points and that could be the difference in a match.

Flo: What was your best game of the year so far? 

I think the last match against Zaska was one of the best matches. I just played the game that I know. Stay high with my contact in swinging and serving and everything else. Just being disciplined in the block. Not necessarily trying to get every single block or kill, and just working with what I got. I thought I did a lot better then than I did in the past, even in college. Especially because I came off the bench against Zaska and I think I got like best player or something like that.

Flo: What are your plans for after this season?

JP: Honestly, I don’t know. I would love to keep playing, whether it’s here or wherever. But my main focus is finishing this season out strong and trying to win our playoff run, try to be champions of our league. As the season is done I’ll worry about the next step, but for now I’m just in the moment of winning this next game, and the next game, and the next game.

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