LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The star attraction at this year’s NCAA women’s volleyball championship is Penn State, and the one getting the most attention is the woman who grew up a few miles from the site of Thursday night’s match.
Penn State junior and Louisville native Deja McClendon is glad to be back in her hometown, and was more than happy to smile her way through every question. Her return was by far the most asked-about topic at Wednesday's press conferences previewing the matches.
“I’m excited to be back home,” she said. “I have such a great support system here and I think that’ll really help our team.”
McClendon and her Nittany Lion teammates face Oregon in the national semifinals at about 9 p.m. in the evening’s second match. Michigan and Texas will battle in the first contest at 7 p.m.
The product of Dupont Manual High School is eager to be on the arena floor and to see what kind of cheering section she can draw from around town.
“We were telling her last weekend when we were coming here to get on Facebook and invite all your friends, even close acquaintances, because we need as many people as we can,” junior middle hitter Katie Slay said. “We definitely want to play hard for her in front of her hometown.”
Much was expected of McClendon this season, with not only her hitting but also with her passing and leadership skills, and her role will be key Thursday night. She has made tremendous progress from her freshman season, when she was the Most Outstanding Player of the championship and national Freshman of the Year that season, but also played a secondary role to seniors like Blair Brown and Arielle Wilson.
“Freshman year, with the senior leadership, I really didn’t have any worries,” McClendon said. “I could just go out and play my hardest without really worrying about scoring big points and that helped me a lot. I gained confidence in myself. But now my role has definitely changed. I have to be a lot smarter.”
McClendon, who had her jersey number retired by her high school when the Nittany Lions played a tournament here in August and also practiced with her teammates at her high school Tuesday night, was honored for her work Wednesday morning by being named an All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.
She’s also thrilled to get to watch her younger sister, Maya, play in the high school All-America match Friday night in the arena.
“When you come to a program like Penn State, your main goal is to be in the national championship game and play to win,” Deja McClendon said. “Obviously I was motivated just to know it was here.”
Another big honorWhile she may not get on the court too much, Penn State sophomore and State College native Maggie Harding picked up a big award Wednesday night. She was named to the Elite 89 — the student-athlete from one of the four remaining teams with the highest cumulative grade-point average.
The Elite 89, so named for the 89 championships the NCAA holds, is based strictly on GPA, for which Harding has a 4.0.
Impressive companyBreaking records with her serving is nothing new for Hancock --- she’s already got several Penn State records for aces — but it was the mark she surpassed last Saturday, and who held the old mark, that was really notable.
Hancock now has 22 aces for this tournament through four matches, which passed the former record of 20 set by Misty May in 1998. The last two aces during that tournament run were registered in the NCAA finals when Long Beach State beat the Nittany Lions.
Breaking a mark of a legend such as May — a three-time Olympic gold medalist in beach volleyball — is pretty special for Hancock.
“It’s really an honor to break the NCAA record,” Hancock said. “I’m really just going out there and trying to help my team score points in one of our best rotations, and the record is just the cherry on top.”
Who are you?Holding with tradition, Rose had his team switch jerseys for Wednesday’s practice, which was open for fans to watch. Opposing teams are not allowed to watch and scout, but in case anyone is in the arena with inquiring eyes, the scouting reports may be a little off.
In some years only a handful of players exchanged numbers, but on Wednesday everyone had a different shirt, including freshman Paulina Prieto Cerame, who has missed the entire season with an injury and was on the court almost as a “ballgirl.”
Been here beforeFor three of the four teams here, there is definitely a sense of familiarity. Penn State opened the regular season playing in Louisville’s Arena for three tournament matches, Texas visited for a match against the Cardinals in early October, and Michigan was here just two weeks ago, knocking Louisville out of the tournament in the second round.
“I think it is exciting to come back here and feel like this is a place where we have had some success,” Michigan coach Mark Rosen said.
Also, teams are having to adjust to playing in the big arena with its wide-open spaces. Imagine being used to the closeness of the bleachers and ceiling height of Rec Hall, then switching to the Bryce Jordan Center and the depth of field there.
Longhorns coach Jerritt Elliott said he had his team essentially do just that — hold a couple practices earlier this week in their basketball arena instead of their 4,500-seat home.
“We wanted to make sure that we were able to get used to this environment and see what the surroundings would be like,” Elliott said.
The Nittany Lions should be well adjusted, having played last weekend in Mackey Arena, Purdue’s basketball facility, instead of the Boilermakers’ normal home.
Emotional liftWhile a great number of important people are expected to be on hand for Thursday’s matches, Penn State fans are hoping to see one in particular in the crowd — cheerleader Paige Raque. The Louisville native was severely injured in a 39-foot fall from a downtown apartment building in October. She has been home the last few weeks beginning her physical rehabilitation.
“To have her here watching us and cheering us on means so much,” McClendon said. “We are one team and having all the support we can get is amazing.”
Radio/TVThe semifinal and final matches will be shown live on ESPN2 (Comcast channel 18).
The matches also will be broadcast on both WRSC AM (1390) and FM (103.1) with Dean DeVore, Brian Tripp and former Nittany Lion and current Eastern Illinois head coach Kate Price.