Penn State’s Ali Frantti and Tori Gorrell both dreamed of wearing the blue and white since they were in junior high. And they told anyone who would listen they’d one day play for the nation’s best college volleyball program.
Now they’re finally here, preparing as the No. 1-seeded Nittany Lions (31-1) host Missouri (22-11) in the NCAA regional semifinals at 2 p.m. Friday in Rec Hall.
“It’s kind of crazy to think about that, that it happened,” Frantti said.
The teams — Michigan State and Illinois will also play, at 4 p.m. Friday — will compete under the rows of banners dangling from the rafters, celebrating the many conference titles and NCAA-record-tying seven national championships. Included is a run of four-straight championships from 2007-10, timed perfectly to catch the eyes of Frantti and Gorrell.
Back in junior high, Frantti can still remember emailing a letter to Nittany Lions coach Russ Rose — expressing her interest, listing her height, how high she could jump and plenty of other details about her young talents in Spring Grove, Ill., north of Chicago. Rose said he still had that message saved until recently when his computer was updated, even if he wasn’t figuring at the time he was hearing from a future All-American and the 2014 AVCA National Freshman of the Year.
“I don’t think we would hold her responsible for what she wrote when she was 11 or 12 years old,” Rose joked about his senior outside hitter, whose 2.46 kills per set this season ranks third on the team.
Frantti nonetheless was focused on getting into the Penn State gym.
“In the back of my mind Penn State was always No. 1,” she said. “You just never know in recruiting.”
Gorrell, on the other hand, was a soccer goalkeeper at about the same age in Oakville, Ontario, just outside Toronto. During a match, someone approached her father to inquire about an interest in volleyball for Gorrell, who was already 6-foot.
“I ended up loving it more than anything I’ve ever done,” she said.
About a year later, when her dad asked what she thought about for her athletic future, she said she wanted to keep playing volleyball — and for the best team.
But who was the best team? Her father, who played football, had no idea — but a Google search answered the question. “I’m going there!” she told him.
“It wasn’t cocky, but it was, like, way overconfident,” Gorrell acknowledged. “I should not have been (like that) especially after the year of volleyball I just had.”
A few years later she was in town with her club team to play in the annual Happy Volley tournament, and the Nittany Lion coaches liked what they saw.
Gorrell, a redshirt sophomore, is starting at middle blocker along with All-American Haleigh Washington. Gorrell is putting down just 1.27 kills per set, but is hitting .445 and her 1.03 blocks per set trails only Washington on the team.
“She came in like most freshmen do — a little bit raw,” Washington said. “She had natural talent, she’s naturally a very athletic kid and she’s quick, which is awesome because I’m a more slow (athlete). She was a quick middle so she brought that to the court.”
Despite the bold dreams, hard work got both to Rec Hall to follow in the footsteps of the players who Gorrell and Frantti were watching on TV and on videos years ago. The stars then were Nicole Fawcett and future U.S. Olympians Alisha Glass and Christa Harmotto.
“I idolized them for sure,” Frantti said. “I wanted to be my own person, obviously, but I looked up to Nicole Fawcett a lot because she could hit the ball real hard and she was an outside hitter too — and she’s blonde.”
Last season, after winning bronze medals at the 2016 Olympics, Glass and Harmotto (now Dietzen) returned to campus and met with the team. Gorrell has a message from Harmotto hanging in her locker, and both admitted to being overwhelmed by the chance to meet their past heroes.
“I’m so in love with her,” Gorrell gushed, admitting to being tongue-tied. “She worked with us before practice and I’m like, ‘Coach, I can’t speak to her. She keeps talking, and I can’t say words back.’”
Notes: Rec Hall will have a different look this weekend, with a synthetic Sport Court covering the usual hardwood floor. The surface, used at most club tournaments as the players were learning the game, also will be used at the national championship in Kansas City, Mo. … Friday is the final day of classes for Penn State’s fall semester, but thanks to the start time the Nittany Lions will not be in their classrooms. “I will be missing my very last day of classes, which is a bummer, but is exciting,” Washington said. “I get to say good-bye to all my teachers and I got my final projects done.” … Missouri’s last two NCAA regional semifinal matches (2005 and 2010) also were played in Rec Hall, though the Tigers and Lions never actually met on the court.
NCAA Women’s Volleyball
At Rec Hall
Friday: Missouri (22-11) at No. 1 Penn State (31-1), 2 p.m.; Michigan State 23-8) vs. Illinois (23-10), 4 p.m.
Saturday: Semifinal winners, 8 p.m.