There was a lot of pride in the offices of Rec Hall during the past two weeks as one Nittany Lion after another took a starring turn at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The best represented teams were the volleyball teams, which sent five players to Rio as both the men’s and women’s teams brought back gold medals.
“Spending the last two weeks watching volleyball every day was great,” Nittany Lion women’s volleyball coach Russ Rose said Tuesday morning at the annual fall sports media day. “I enjoyed having the chance to do that.”
Current Nittany Lion middle blocker Haleigh Washington said she was watching many of the matches, and took a number of qualities away from the matches, including the willingness of the international players to not hold back even at critical moments, but to take big swings at the ball.
Aaron Russell, Matt Anderson and Max Holt all started nearly every match for the men’s team, and Russell was named to, essentially, the all-tournament team.
Also earning that honor was the setter for the women’s team, Alisha Glass. She was joined by ex-Lion Christa Dietzen in the lineup, though Dietzen did not see a lot of playing time.
“It was great to me every night to watch Penn State players,” Rose said, “whether they were … the men playing both for USA and a couple guys I saw play when they were here involved with the Mexico team.”
Carlos Guerra played for Mexico and Ivan Contreras was an assistant coach to add even more Nittany Lion representation on the men’s side.
Rose was happy Glass stuck with the U.S. team and earned her chance. She was an alternate for the 2012 Games.
“It’s tough to go from being an alternate,” Rose said, “to having to stick it out for another quad and to be able to earn the right and the opportunity to lead your nation’s team.”
In addition to the volleyball players, fencing, track and swimming also saw Nittany Lions competing, along with wrestler Frank Molinaro. The Penn State wrestling office is next door to Rose’s office.
“Made me feel good,” Rose said. “Rec Hall’s represented well at the Rio Olympics.”
Each year dozens of State College Area High School graduates go across town to attend Penn State, and there is always a handful who get onto various Nittany Lion teams.
Among those who have persevered to attain success on the field is Sam Bollinger, who went through the walk-on tryouts with the men’s soccer team, amazed the coaches with his fitness — “Sam’s a different level of fitness,” coach Bob Warming said — and completed the journey to earn scholarship money.
“Sam’s one of the best stories coming out of State College,” Warming said. “He’s a guy who didn’t think he was good enough … coming out of high school.”
Warming recounted all that the chemistry major is doing in the classroom, and how little sleep he gets while balancing soccer and his studies, but is glad the 2012 State College graduate stuck with soccer.
“For a local guy to do that,” Warming said, “be that guy and to become a scholarship player at Penn State is, in our sport, a pretty cool thing.”
Another former Little Lion now competing for Nittany Lion time is Victoria Crawford. The former two-sport star played soccer at Indiana, Pa., for a season before transferring home and has worked her way into possibly getting into the cross country lineup. She ran the 400 meters at State College, but is now running 5 kilometers and longer.
“Cross country’s a sport you need time to grow into and get used to,” coach John Gondak said. “… It takes a little learning how to be in that mindset.”
Natasha Fedkina and Hannah Catalano are other former Lady Little Lions on Gondak’s cross country roster.
Nye talks U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur
Penn State men’s golf coach Greg Nye couldn’t stay away.
When two of his former players, TJ Howe and Kevin Foley, made it to the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont, he just had to drive out to Pittsburgh to catch at least the first day of the tournament.
Of course, this year’s opening round Thursday at the U.S. Open was suspended due to three separate rain delays, so Nye wasn’t able to see much golf.
But he did get to see a couple of former Nittany Lions represent the Penn State golf program.
“It’s such a hard process getting there,” Nye said. “I was so excited making the trip over there to see them on the big stage. It was an incredible high.”
Nye also had four Nittany Lions compete in the 116th U.S. Amateur. Ryan Dornes, Geoff Vartelas, Chris Houston and J.D. Hughes competed on the North and South Courses of Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield, Mich., last week.
“It’s super exciting, and I’m very, very proud of them,” Nye said.
Hackenberg making mark in soccer
When your older brother is Christian Hackenberg, you’ve got quite a bit to live up to as a Penn State athlete.
But Christian’s younger brother, Brandon, a freshman defender on the men’s soccer team, has made an early impression on Warming.
Brandon Hackenberg, who enrolled last spring after graduating high school early, had a couple of knee surgeries, but Warming believes he’s regaining his form.
“He has some great qualities, and is a very powerful player,” Warming said.
The coach noted that Brandon Hackenberg is “terrific in the air” and both attacks and defends well with his noggin.
The defender is also left-footed, which is ideal for Warming.
“God just didn’t create enough left-footed players,” the coach said. “Usually guys who are left-footed really have a chance to make an impact with the team because there are so few of them that are good.”
Looking to the Futcher
The women’s golf team got an addition to the coaching staff this season, and it’s someone who knows the game pretty well. LPGA veteran Katie Futcher is a volunteer assistant coach this year for the Nittany Lions, giving a perspective that’s hard to find.
On the LPGA Tour since 2006, with $1.3 million in career earnings, the Penn State graduate decided “to hang up her shoes,” according to coach Denise St. Pierre, and wanted to get into coaching.
“She just has such a love for Penn State and for this program and really wanted to spend a little more time with us,” St. Pierre said.
Futcher, who had 10 career top-10 finishes but no wins, had not competed on the tour since 2014.
“She’s definitely a great asset for our team,” sophomore Lauren Waller said. “She’s kind of been in my shoes and my teammates’ shoes.”