UNIVERSITY PARK — It was a strange feeling in the south gym in Rec Hall.
The Penn State women’s volleyball team had started practicing, dripping with sweat as they toiled in the hot gym, and something was missing.
For the first time in four years, they were not starting their August training camp as the defending national champions.
Needless to say, it has provided a little fuel.
“It was definitely a reality check,” senior setter Kristin Carpenter said. “For my class, it’s the first offseason we’ve had where we haven’t won our last game, which was really tough. I think it’s the best thing that could have happened to this group of girls because we know it doesn’t come easy.”
After four straignt NCAA titles, this Nittany Lion team merely advanced to the NCAA regional semifinals before falling to eventual national champ UCLA.
A new season starts Friday, and the start of the long road back to the top, when they face Morehead State in the Active Ankle Challenge in Louisville, Ky. Penn State, No. 3 in the nation to start the season, also faces Western Kentucky and the host Cardinals this coming weekend.
That the season does not have any banner-raising ceremonies planned, and no one got to pick up any championship rings in the spring, has provided quite the incentive.
“I came off one season where I was just stunned and amazed about what could happen,” junior outside hitter Deja McClendon said. “(Last) season I was extremely disappointed in myself. Having that feeling and knowing how good you could feel after the season just makes you so hungry. You just start making a list of things you need to do to start getting back into that spot. It’s one of the best things that could have happened to me.”
'Need to be a team'
Having time to reflect, team members settled on some of the roots of their failure to meet their biggest goal of 2011, and they worked to make corrections.
“It’s being a team,” said McClendon, a first-team All- American last year. “Our leadership wasn’t really there. People tried, but I don’t think we were a team, and I think that’s what we worked on this summer.”
McClendon said everyone spent a lot of time together during the spring and summer, and much like a family, more communication was needed.
“I like what they’re saying,” head coach Russ Rose said. “They need to work hard, they need to be a team, they need to hold each other accountable and they’ve made some strides in there. At least they say some things. Part of it is acknowledging that those are things you need to work on.”
Much of that team has returned this season, led by McClendon and opposite Ariel Scott, the team’s top two termination threats with each averaging 3.54 kills per set in 2011.
McClendon, now a junior, is still not quite comfortable being a seasoned veteran on the team.
“I feel like the two years that I’ve been here it’s been really fast,’ McClendon said. “I’ve learned a lot, but at the same time I feel like I have so much more to learn. I’m just trying to soak it all up. I wouldn’t call myself a veteran by any means.”
The rest of the offensive starting lineup also returns in middle hitters Katie Slay and Nia Grant and outside hitter Maddie Martin, along with setter Micha Hancock. Hancock made a big splash with her serving as a freshman, registering 91 aces and ranking second in the nation, but her most important job is running the offense and an offseason with her teammates has helped her take big steps.
“I got into the gym a lot,” Hancock said. “The spring, the offseason were just packed full of tempo, who wants the ball where, and it was really enlightening.”
While those six return, there were a few departures. Darcy Dorton, once an All-American and National Freshman of the Year, has transferred to the College of Charleston while starting libero Ali Longo is now at Hawaii.
Leading the group to take Longo’s place is sophomore Dominique Gonzalez, who did see quite a bit of court time as a backrow specialist, and Carpenter, who has done a little bit of everything during her career including being the starting setter for the 2010 national title. Senior Marika Racibarskas, sophomore Lacey Fuller, redshirt sophomore and State College product Maggie Harding and freshmen Lara Caraway and Kendall Pierce join the defensive specialists.
Erica Denney should make bigger contributions in the middle, and a pair of 6-foot-2 freshmen could get court time soon with Megan Courtney, whom Rose on Wednesday said had the best chance of getting in early, and Paulina Prieto Cerame, who is hobbled for the opener by a leg injury.
Following this weekend, the schedule gets very challenging with the Nike Big Four Challenge coming to Rec Hall. The Nittany Lions play No. 6 Stanford on ug. 31 and No. 2 Texas on Saturday, with No. 18 Florida also on hand for matches.
“It gives not just me an idea, it gives the players a better idea how they stack up against some of the top teams and players in the country,” Rose said. “I think that’s pretty important information.”
They are looking forward to the challenge, and to returning to a better ending to the season story.
“We want to win our last match of the year,” Hancock said. “That’s the goal.”