About 45 minutes before each home match, Penn State women’s volleyball fans who get to Rec Hall early see the same sight.
The team gathers behind the bleachers at one end of the court, pounds their hands on the back of the bleachers and takes two laps around the gym. They then take the court, go through a few jumping drills and highlight that seemingly mundane drill with Simone Lee, Nia Reed and Haleigh Washington hoisting Emily Sciorra high into the air. The 5-foot-4 defensive specialist then reaches over the net like she was a 6-foot-4 blocker.
Those are a few of the many little things — call them rituals or even superstitions — the Nittany Lions have done for years. Even away from home they do something similar. Expect to see it Thursday night at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., before No. 1 Penn State meets No. 6 Nebraska at 7 p.m. in the NCAA semifinals.
“It’s honestly so cool, and you’re carrying on traditions that others have worked so hard to carry on,” Sciorra said Wednesday morning, before the team’s final home practice of the year. “It’s honestly like the smallest, stupidest thing sometimes.”
It is easy to see the program’s history and success with banners in the rafters, trophies in the coaches’ offices, posters of former players on the walls and plaques for each of the team’s All-Americans in a hallway next to their locker room. But it’s the little traditions that perhaps connect them best with the past. Carrying on what may be fun or silly — maybe even head-scratching — bring them all closer together and make them appreciate the history, knowing All-Americans, national champions, even future Olympians used to participate in the silliness.
“It’s just kind of fun and brings us all together,” senior Heidi Thelen said. “It’s kind of a way for us to relax and do all these different things before the game, and not stress and say, ‘Oh my gosh, we have a big match coming up. What are we going to do?’ It’s just us staying together and doing our normal rituals.”
They also know they can’t stop the little rituals. Alumni always ask if one thing or another is still carried on, or who gets hoisted in the air at the net.
That scene in particular dates back better than a dozen years, with Tabitha Eshleman lifted above the net. The honor is bestowed on the smallest player, with Cathy Quilico, Maggie Harding and, last year, Laura Broerman among those who precede Sciorra.
“Simone always threatens to throw me over the net,” Sciorra joked. “It’s fun.”
There are other things as well, like the run the team takes up and down the halls of Rec Hall before each practice. Before matches, Lee will walk over to Sciorra as the team is on the floor stretching and put both hands on Sciorra’s face. When the arena clock reads 15:45 before the match starts, when serving-and-passing drills begin, Washington holds Thelen’s arms behind her as she leans over the serve line appearing ready to fall. That also dates back more than a decade, and Thelen said she had no idea why she was chosen.
The tiny events may seem odd, but they help keep everyone loose and strengthen the bonds of friendship while playing a game they love.
“Just being able to enjoy the game, and just play the game, is a huge part of being able to be successful,” Washington said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that having (a) ‘fun factor’ makes us resilient, what makes us grind as much, but it definitely contributes and it definitely helps.”
While continuing the silliness will not help beat the Cornhuskers, it will still help the players feel comfortable, doing the same thing they have done every match, even if it is the biggest weekend of their college careers.
They may be halfway across the country, but a little bit of Rec Hall, and Penn State’s rich history, will be with them on the court.
“It’s something fun that we do,” Lee said. “It’s cool that we can continue doing that, It’s something that I’m going to miss for sure because it might seem like something really small and minute to other people, but to us it’s something that we always look forward to.”
Penn State’s graduation ceremonies for the winter semester are this weekend, and each of the team’s six seniors is scheduled to get their degree. They will be missing the event, however, with the best of reasons.
“Yes, I’ve gotten a great education here,” Thelen said. “At the same time we’re going to be doing something that’s just as great as that — training and trying to win a national championship. I’m a little disappointed, but at the same time I’d rather be playing volleyball.”