Maggie Harding vividly remembers the 1999 women’s volleyball championships.
She was seven years old, and she and her parents were staying up late, listening to the NCAA finals on the radio as Penn State beat Stanford in Honolulu for the program’s first title.
Thirteen years later, she’s got a front row seat hoping to be a part of another Nittany Lion celebration.
The State College product may not get much playing time, but she has certainly played an important role as Penn State has put on a chase for the program’s sixth title, facing Oregon in the NCAA semifinals Thursday night.
“It’s indescribable to be here living it with my team,” the redshirt sophomore said. “We’ve worked really, really hard as every Penn State team has done in the past putting in the time, blood, sweat, tears as the cliché goes.”
And not only is she devoting all that effort, but she is also an integral part of a recent pregame ritual the team runs through for every match. As the team begins its on-court warm-ups, they all take a few jumps at the net and take phantom swings, and beginning those jumps a pair of teammates lift Harding up above the net.
It was a ritual begun nearly a decade ago with alumnus Tabitha Eshleman, and has continued on with whoever is deemed to be the smallest of the Nittany Lions, including 5-foot-1 Cathy Quilico for several seasons and Megan Shifflett last year.
“Penn State is the biggest team on tradition and superstition, doing everything the same every game,” Harding said. “It’s really cool that we do it every game the same every time. It’s cool to carry on that tradition.”
While the little ritual is just a small moment, she also got honored with something much bigger Wednesday night, earning the NCAA’s Elite 89 award as the player from the four teams at the finals with the best grade-point average. The food science major has a 4.0 gpa, and while she was not the only athlete with a perfect score, she met other tie-breaking criteria to earn her the top spot.
Her most pressing concern, however, is what the Nittany Lions do on the court in Louisville, and she is hoping to make a difference any way she can.
“I came into it knowing I had to work my butt off to be a part of this team,” Harding said. “I know I might not get as much playing time, but that’s not what matters. Making the team better every day is the goal, and we made it here.”
Getting to the national championship weekend is a cool enough experience, but being a member of a school that gets its playing gear from Nike has its advantages.
Penn State, Oregon and Texas all have deals with the athletic gear company, and they were awarded with a nice gift bag upon their arrival in Louisville.
“I know all the teams get presents, but we got awesome Nike gifts this morning,” Oregon setter Lauren Plum said Wednesday. “It was like Christmas before Christmas.”
The bags, according to Plum and Harding, included jackets, pullovers, yoga pants, shirts and a new high-tech backpack. The athletes, according to Harding, also were instructed to post pictures to brag to others the benefits of being at a Nike school.
“Nike treated us well,” Harding said. “Obviously that’s not what we come here for, but it’s really nice that they do that. We got some new gear, some swag to show off.”
With three Nittany Lions standing in a hallway at the KFC Yum! Center, the question was posed to Lacey Fuller about who was the “class clown” on the team.
The response was quick from a teammate.
“Why are you asking the clown?” asked freshman Paulina Prieto Cerame.
Fuller, with her curly red hair and a bubbly personality, fills the role quite well, adding levity when the pressure starts to build.
“People find a way to laugh at me and that makes me feel more confident,” Fuller said with a laugh.
Prieto Cerame specifically mentioned the Nittany Lions’ previous match, a tight win over Minnesota in the regional finals, in which Fuller energized the team in the fourth set to help pick up the win.
“She brings energy outside and inside the court,” Prieto Cerame said.
Parkland High School senior Kelly Robertson was named the Gatorade Pennsylvania Player of the Year on Wednesday. The 6-foot middle blocker had 548 kills while hitting .493, 144 digs, 93 blocks and 43 aces in helping Parkland to the PIAA Class AAA finals.
Robertson, who has committed to Penn State as a walk-on, will play in the Ander Armour All-American Game on Friday night in Louisville.
Former Nittany Lion men’s standout Matt Anderson was named USA Volleyball Indoor Athlete of the Year on Wednesday.
Anderson, who was national co-Player of the Year while helping Penn State to the national championship in 2008, was a key member of the U.S. national team last summer at the Olympics. At age 25, the youngest member of the U.S. team led them in scoring and kills and was second in blocks while playing every set of the team’s matches in London.
Use those tickets
Nebraska may have been knocked out of the tournament in the regional finals by Oregon, but that didn’t stop many Cornhusker faithful from traveling to Louisville anyway. Quite a few fans dressed in red and white were spotted around town and in the arena Thursday.
Before Saturday’s finals, several big names in volleyball will be on hand signing autographs, including U.S. national team setter Lindsey Berg, beach star Kerri Walsh and former men’s setter Lloy Ball.