Wednesday night’s match at Rec Hall was hardly a barometer of the season the Penn State women’s volleyball team has put together.
Head coach Russ Rose just hopes it doesn’t portend things to come.
“If you're trying to get some momentum going down the stretch run,” he said, “you'd like to think that you'd be able to start your own engines and get out there and do it.”
It was clear the No. 1 Nittany Lions are at a different level than Indiana, which became the latest victim of the Penn State wrecking ball 25-21, 25-16, 25-15, but the match was closer than it should have been.
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Penn State (26-1, 16-1 Big Ten) was paced by Haleigh Washington’s 10 kills and five blocks, Ali Frantti’s nine kills, Tori Gorrell’s eight blocks, Kendall White’s eight digs and 19 and 15 assists, respectively, for Abby Detering and Bryanna Weiskircher.
The meeting with the Hoosiers (12-17, 1-16) closed the regular-season home schedule, with three more matches on the road before the NCAA bracket is announced Nov. 26 and the tournament opens Dec. 1.
Penn State has been putting the opposition away with ease lately, possessing a 16-match win streak, the nation’s best record and a No. 1 ranking in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll for the past five weeks. The Lions are a unanimous No. 1 this week.
While a top ranking and win streaks are nice, as is a share of the Big Ten lead, the program always aims for the top — in this case NCAA title No. 8. Based on the last few performances, Rose isn’t impressed.
“In my class, I’m a lot easier grader than I am in practice,” said Rose, who is typically a harsh critic. “I’d say the last couple of matches we’re a ‘C.’ I don’t think a ‘C’ goes very far in the NCAA tournament because people care. Everybody cares; it’s just how much you care. I didn’t think we played with much passion or purpose the last two matches.”
The team has been showing inconsistency in a number of areas, including passing and serving — areas that can bring a premature end to the season.
“First contact is something we need to work on, just in a consistent kind of way,” Washington said. “It doesn’t always have to be a perfect pass. ... Grom there, it’s keeping in mind that, even if that contact isn’t good enough, the next contact has to be better, or your next contact has to be better — always bettering the ball.”
There are plenty of bright spots.
They have the nation’s best hitting percentage at .351, meaning they are efficient and not making a lot of errors or wasting time and energy on long rallies. Washington has been especially impressive, leading the nation at .515, making just 30 hitting errors in 27 matches. Only two women in the rally-scoring era have finished a season hitting above .500, topped by Arielle Wilson’s .540 set during the Lions’ 2009 title run.
Washington also is 12th in the nation in blocking, and Penn State ranks 10th as a team in the category. The Hoosiers experienced that Wednesday, getting stuffed 13 times, forcing them into .083 hitting.
Simone Lee also has been a source of reliability most of the year, pacing the team with her 358 total kills while she is second on the team in digs.
Rose pointed out his team is worn down a little more by a disjointed schedule the last four weeks with matches on Wednesday and Saturday, with one at home and the other on the road, instead of the typical Friday-Saturday slate. It has impacted practice, rest and recovery schedules.
Still, Rose wants to know he can rely on all six women on the court each night, and he was questioning their readiness and resolve Wednesday.
“Sometimes you have a group of people that want to do great things, and sometimes you have a group of people,” he said.
Washington understood the team has its flaws, taking her role as a team leader to remind her teammates that every practice and every play matters.
“It’s a mentality thing,” she said. “It’s not just, ‘Oh, it’s good enough to win. Oh, it’s good enough.’ It has to be 100 percent.”