It’s been three years since Penn State last won an NCAA women’s volleyball national championship.
Ali Frantti remembers the experience, a freshman on a team with senior leaders who knew how to win and how to handle the long grind of a season.
This fall, she and five others are the seasoned seniors who will be looked upon to return the Nittany Lions to the top.
“Winning our freshman year, the seniors really carried us,” the senior outside hitter said. “The freshmen, sophomores, juniors, we want to win for them. It’s an incredible experience and a memory we won’t forget. That’s what we’re pushing for: Leaving the program better than when we came in.”
The No. 6 Nittany Lions return all seven starters as they gun for the eight national title in program history.
The season starts at 4:30 p.m. Friday at the West Virginia Tournament against Tennessee-Martin.
“It’s a long race,” coach Russ Rose said Wednesday at Penn State’s annual fall sports media day. “You need to be healthy, you need to be smart, and you need to be doing all the things that you have to do over a 14-week season. We start early and always hope to go late.”
Rose certainly knows how to make his season go late. His seven NCAA titles are more than any other coach, as are his 1,213 Division I wins and .861 win percentage.
Penn State also had the team record for most national titles, until Stanford — with a freshman-heavy lineup — picked up its seventh last fall. The perennial powers meet twice in the next two weeks.
The Nittany Lions were in a position to take another title run last postseason, with No. 1 seed and Big Ten rival Nebraska on the ropes in Lincoln. Penn State won the first two sets and were on the verge of a sweep when the Cornhuskers rallied for a five-set win.
With so many big wins, and tough losses, over his previous 38 seasons, Rose knows how to brush off that kind of night, keeping his players looking forward and not back.
“Even though it was a hard hit and something that makes your stomach curdle,” senior middle blocker Haleigh Washington said, “you work just as hard win or lose.”
Washington is another of those seniors with strong memories of winning the crown as a freshman.
“We worked just as hard after we won our freshman year as we did after we lost to Hawaii our sophomore year, and then losing to Nebraska our junior year,” she said. “We work just as hard regardless of the outcome the previous season.”
The starting rotation figures to be the same Friday night as it was to end last year, with Washington and Tori Gorrell in the middle, Frantti and Simone Lee as outside hitters, Heidi Thelen at opposite, Kendall White at libero and setter Abby Detering.
With or without all that experience, Rose still expects every season for his program to be ending with a trophy celebration.
“There are high expectations in programs that have had great success over the course of time,” he said. “You hope that’s why the players come to your institution, to continue a tradition.”
Even if his team didn’t finish on top, even if they couldn’t hold off the Huskers in their last match, there was still value for his team. They all will find out how well they learned from the experience starting Friday.
“Not all experiences are good, but they’re all beneficial,” he said. “I think some of the players learned certain things throughout last year that maybe were different than the previous year.”
Welcome back Dennis
Added to the staff during the summer was Dennis Hohenshelt as a volunteer assistant. Hohenshelt was the head coach at Virginia the last five years, after a combined 16 seasons on the staffs of the women’s and men’s Nittany Lion programs. His wife, Tara, was hired as an assistant coach for women’s lacrosse earlier this year.
“I think it’s great to have Dennis and his family back in State College,” Rose said. “I give Dennis a free wheel to talk about the things that he wants to talk about with the players.”
Head coach: Russ Rose (39 th season)
Last season: 24-10, fourth place Big Ten, lost to Nebraska in NCAA regional semifinals
Starters returning: 7
Season opens: vs. Tennessee-Martin at West Virginia, 4:30 p.m. Friday