It will be a different kind of opponent on the other side of the net Friday night for the Penn State women’s volleyball team.
After spending two-plus months exclusively facing Big Ten teams, with their big, physical athletes, the Nittany Lions will have to make an adjustment for their next match.
The two-time defending champion Nittany Lions (26-5) will begin their chase for a third straight title at 7:30 p.m. Friday against Howard (18-13) at Rec Hall.
The Bison will definitely be smaller. Howard doesn’t have anyone on its roster taller than 6-foot — and that’s just one player. Everyone else is 5-11 or shorter. Every Penn State starter who plays in the front row stands between 6-0 and 6-3.
With the size disparity, the Nittany Lions will have to get used to different styles and lower hitting angles.
“Howard is certainly an enthusiastic, bouncy, athletic team,” coach Russ Rose said, “that does a number of things I’m sure will get our attention and hopefully we won’t be too rattled with what they do.”
The Bison won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and have won 13 straight matches. They also have a few shared opponents with the Lions, falling in four sets to Rutgers and Maryland and getting swept 3-0 by Villanova. The Wildcats and Dayton meet in Friday’s first match at Rec Hall at 5 p.m.
However, Penn State has something else no other team in the tournament can claim: Tons of championship game experience after taking the previous two titles. Still, Rose takes nothing for granted.
“I don’t know how many times we’ve been in the NCAAs,” said Rose, who has guided the team to appearances in all 35 NCAA tournaments, joining Stanford as the only programs that can make that claim. “But obviously we’ve won the championship more than anybody else (seven times). But I always think the same thing at the beginning — I really have no idea how some people are going to play.”
That has also been the case for this team recently. They opened the season winning 13 straight, including the first 12 by 3-0 sweeps, but closed the regular season dropping three of the last five matches. The inconsistent play has been troubling for the coach.
“This has been a season where we’ve had some matches where we obviously didn’t play well, and some matches where it looked like we were going to play well,” Rose said. “The season is upon us where everybody will judge how the 2015 team finished.”
Ready for PSU
The Bison may be a little in awe Friday night. They will look up and see those seven championship banners in the Rec Hall rafters, meet a Penn State coach who has won more Division I matches than anyone else and a bigger crowd in the bleachers than they’ve seen all season. A total of 4,227 fans saw Howard play this season, which is 142 more than Penn State averaged this year, and six times the Lions drew more than that to individual matches.
Coach Shaun Kupferberg knows it will be a special night for his program.
“Penn State is a very good team and it will be great to go play a program with so much history,” the coach was quoted on the team’s website. “It’s similar to a basketball team playing UCLA back when John Wooden was coaching there. We’re walking into a big-time environment against a strong team and one of the best coaches in the sport but it is all part of the stepping stone process for our program. We’re looking forward to playing hard, having fun, giving it our best shot and learning from the entire experience.”
Big Ten Awards
Haleigh Washington, Megan Courtney and Aiyana Whitney were named All-Big Ten on Tuesday.
The conference announced postseason honors, with Washington earning a unanimous selection, one of seven women on the 14-player list to pick up every vote from the conference coaches. Washington ranks third in Division I in hitting at .442 and is 23rd in the nation in blocks per set (1.39).
Also, Kendall Pierce was named the Sportsmanship Award winner for the Nittany Lions.
Among individual awards from a vote of the coaches, Minnesota’s Daly Santana was named Player of the Year, Nebraska’s Justine Wong-Orantes is the Defensive Player of the Year, Wisconsin’s Lauren Carlini is the Setter of the Year, Minnesota’s Samantha Seliger-Swenson is the Freshman of the Year, and the Golden Gophers’ coach, Hugh McCutcheon was selected as the Coach of the Year by both his peers and the media.