Penn State Volleyball

Penn State volleyball: Nittany Lions open NCAA regional with Kentucky

The Penn State women’s volleyball team has a pretty good recent history of having a freshman play a key role in the program’s success each season.

In 10 of the last 11 seasons, the Nittany Lions have had the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year, and three times in the last seven seasons they even put the national Freshman of the Year on the court.

Penn State has another big contributor this season in Megan Courtney, who has been in the starting lineup since August racking up kill after kill while helping the Nittany Lions to the No. 1 seed and to this weekend’s sweet 16.

Penn State (31-2) faces No. 16 Kentucky (22-10) at 5 p.m. today in the NCAA regional semifinals in West Lafayette, Ind. The match will be followed by two more Big Ten teams in action, with site host Purdue (23-10) meeting No. 8 Minnesota (26-7). The winners will battle at 4 p.m. Saturday for a spot at the national semifinals Dec. 13 in Louisville, Ky.

Courtney is eager for the chance to get the Nittany Lions back on top of the volleyball world.

“(I have) a little bit of butterflies, but it’s just another volleyball game,” Courtney said. “It’s what I know how to do, so hopefully I’m going to be able to do what I know how to do and just focus on the next opponent.”

Head coach Russ Rose almost annually has a strong mix of veterans and newcomers in his lineup, and frequently there is a freshman who makes a major contribution. Nicole Fawcett and Megan Hodge were national freshmen of the year in 2005 and 2006, respectively, and they went on to help start a run of four straight national titles. In 2010, Deja McClendon earned the same honor before going on to be the Most Outstanding Player of the national championship that season.

It’s not to say that any of those honors are destined for Courtney, only that there is a legacy with the program.

“I don’t really look at stats,” Courtney said. “I aspire to be like them, a goal to be like them, but I’m not going to be disappointed if I’m not.”

Looking at those stats, even if she doesn’t, Courtney has 220 kills on .249 hitting, 206 digs and 88 blocks. She has led or shared the team lead in kills three times and in blocking five times.

“She’s scored all year — consistently,” sophomore setter Micha Hancock said. “She’s one of our most consistent players, I think, passing-wise too. She’s always working hard and that’s what we like to see from freshmen.”

Passing is definitely a strong suit for the 6-foot-2 outside hitter from Dayton, Ohio, who helps augment the back row’s passing to set up the offense, and if not for the team losing two other players early in the season, one to injury and one for non-volleyball reasons, Courtney’s role might have been different this season.

“Megan Courtney’s just a really good volleyball player that has just a full arsenal of skills,” Rose said. “She’s a good passer, and at one point my intention was to run a 6-2 (offense) and have her set (part time). With the roster being as it was, I had to change what the original goal was and go in a different direction.”

Courtney did run into a little difficulty last month — the normal time when freshman “hit the wall” as they reach the point when their normal high school seasons would end while the college season goes a month longer. But she has shaken it off for the postseason and appears ready for a big weekend for the Nittany Lions.

“She was struggling about three or four weeks ago,” Rose said. “She’s kind of getting a little more energy back, a little more excitement about playing in the NCAAs. For some of the younger kids, depending on what their job requires, it can be a heavy load for them.”

The Nittany Lions will be facing a Wildcat program in the regional semifinals for the second straight season and put together a strong showing in the SEC, finishing third in the Eastern Division.

“They’re a team, if they were in the Big Ten, they’d be successful in the Big Ten,” Rose said. “SEC’s a good conference.”

Lending a hand tonight, with her strong right arm, will be the latest of Penn State’s top freshman performers.

“Just being here is phenomenal and a really, really great goal that I’ve accomplished,” Courtney said. “My goal’s not over yet for this season. Just being able to contribute as much as I can, whether it’s on the court, off the court, vocally, non-vocally, it doesn’t matter. As long as I’m contributing in some way, it means that I’m helping the team out.”

Notes: Tonight’s match can be seen online on ESPN3, and Saturday’s regional final will be shown on ESPNU. Tonight’s match can be heard on WRSC AM (1390) and FM (103.1), and if Penn State wins on WRSC-AM on Saturday. Rec Hall announcer Dean DeVore and former Nittany Lion and current Eastern Illinois head coach Kate Price will provide the play-by-play and color. The Nittany Lions and Wildcats have not met since 1986, and Penn State is 5-1 all-time I the series. Penn State enters the match having won its last 10 straight matches. Ariel Scott likely will hit a major milestone this weekend. The junior opposite has 976 career kills, leaving her 24 away from 1,000. The match will be played in Mackey Arena, Purdue’s basketball facility, instead of the much smaller Holloway Gymnasium, the program’s normal home.