UNIVERSITY PARK — The matches were pretty challenging, there were high and low points and all but one of them ended up as victories.
But now there is more on the line, and there is no coasting or easing into this part of the schedule.
The Big Ten season has arrived and Nebraska is in town.
The No. 4 Penn State women’s volleyball team (10-1) opens up Big Ten play at 8 p.m. today in Rec Hall against the No. 3 Cornhuskers (8-1), and the Nittany Lions will get a good look at where they stand not only in the conference but against one of the nation’s top teams.
With a national television audience watching and a big crowd expected, the Lions are eager to face their rivals.
“We’re pretty excited to start the Big Ten,” said sophomore libero Dominique Gonzalez. “It’s what you look forward to all season long. I know I’m really excited and I think our team is as well.”
After opening the 2011 conference campaign at Nebraska, and falling, the Lions are glad the surroundings are a little more comfortable for this opener.
“I’m excited to get them in our gym,” junior middle hitter Katie Slay said. “We have a lot of confidence here. We want to show them what we’ve got.”
Assessing the now-completed non-conference schedule gave a glimpse of what kind of team Penn State has on the court this year, and with nearly the same lineup as a year ago the same observation can be made — the team still has issues with consistency.
“We have different inconsistencies, but we’re still inconsistent,” head coach Russ Rose said. “Individually the players are better than they were last year, but I don’t think that means they’re done with their development.”
After a solid opening weekend in Louisville, Penn State scored a pair of wins over top-10 teams in Stanford and Texas, with many more good signs shown in the latter match. But the next two weekends not only brought a loss to unranked Oregon State but some of the same ups and downs from match to match.
“We played our best volleyball to date in those two matches,” Rose said of beating the Cardinal and Longhorns. “We started OK in the Louisville tournament, I thought we played pretty well there, but then we weren’t very good in Chicago and we weren’t very sharp last weekend either. We won, but I’m more interested in how we played than if we win or lose.”
The hitting is still solid, with a .316 percentage ranking seventh in the nation, and they are still putting on pressure with their serving, but there have been enough errors for both — and in other areas — to keep Rose concerned.
“There are two sets of expectations that matter — mine and theirs,” Rose said. “I don’t think they’re playing up to my expectations, but they’re 10-1 and people think they’re doing great.”
Tonight’s match doesn’t figure to be easy, with a Cornhusker lineup just as experienced — if not moreso — than the Nittany Lions.
A little — cosmetically speaking — luster was taken off the match when each suffered a loss in the last two weeks, with Penn State falling to the Beavers in five sets and Nebraska stumbling in four to Iowa State. Two weeks ago the programs were ranked 1-2 in the nation.
The rankings will have no bearing on the quality of the match.
“They’re smart enough to know who the top teams in the country and the conference are,” Rose said. “Some of the kids put banners up so they’re aware of how the landscape of college volleyball goes and the younger kids, they don’t know but they’ll have to figure it out.”
Following a long and spirited practice Tuesday, the women are hoping they can finally find some consistency against the team that ended their run of seven straight Big Ten titles last fall.
“When it’s time to step up we all can handle our business and take care of ourselves,” Slay said. “We have to play cohesive as a unit and I have all the faith in my team that we can play consistent volleyball week-in and week-out. I think it’s a matter of going out there and actually doing it and not just saying we’re going to.”
“They’re a good team,” Gonzalez said. “It’s going to be a great match and we’re looking forward to it.”
Gordon Brunskill can be reached at 231-4608.