First to Five: Is Penn State … Penn State Again?

By Mila Jasper

Every week, our volleyball columnist Mila Jasper tackles the biggest stories in the Big Ten in her column “First to Five”. This week, she analyzes the potential re-emergence of perennial power Penn State.

Not long ago, Penn State volleyball was the indisputable queen of every court it encountered. If you knew one fact about college volleyball, it was that Penn State was the team.  

This reputation was well-earned. The Nittany Lions held a 109-match win streak over three years (2007-2010). They snagged four straight national titles during that period, and they held the most national titles with 7 until 2014. 

But now, the volleyball world can’t stop talking about parity. Parity is everywhere, on every broadcast, on the tip of every coach’s tongue after a non-conference loss. The career of Jordan Thompson is a prime example – the opposite hitter plays at the University of Cincinnati, a team that has never been close to elite. Yet Thompson was a critical piece of the national team offense that won a bid to the Olympics. 

Though no team outside of the traditional powerhouses has won a national title, there is also no one team owning the NCAA the way Penn State did at the end of the 2000s. Even Stanford and Nebraska, who have traded the title back and forth for the past four years, haven’t reached the level of infallibility that the Nittany Lions achieved back in the day.

This increasing competitiveness throughout the NCAA is a good thing. I want every match to be a gut-wrenching, point-for-point slugfest. But Penn State’s dynasty was powerful. They had swagger. They had pizazz. They won matches they shouldn’t have. 

The Penn State of today is a far cry from the monopoly power of the program’s past. Yet looking at the upward trend of the Nittany Lions as of late, I can’t help but wonder if Russ Rose’s giant was only sleeping. 

This week, senior libero Kendall White and sophomore setter Gabby Blossom were named Big Ten defensive player and setter of the week, respectively. That’s Blossom’s third recognition and White’s second this season. Blossom and White are keys to State’s success, and both look like they are kicking it into high gear as the tournament looms ahead. 

The core of Penn State’s lineup is a group of stellar sophomores – and they are starting to come together as a unit when it matters. Blossom, along with right side star Jonni Parker, middle hitters Serena Gray and Kaitlyn Hord and defensive specialist Jenna Hampton are all sophomores. These players comprised the nation’s top-ranked 2018 recruiting class. 

At the end of Penn State’s dynasty, the team stopped looking like a capital P program and started looking like a group of talented players who didn’t know where to turn when their luck was down. 

For a time, Russ Rose was even running an offense with two setters (Bryanna Weiskircher and Abby Detering) – something that would have been unthinkable in the Micha Hancock era. Similarly, after libero Alyssa D’Errico held down the fort in the back row for four national titles, the libero jersey was somewhat up for grabs, with no clear leader at the position. 

But now, the starters for State are locked in. It’s a lineup that is scoring well across categories in Big Ten stats. The Nittany Lions are second in the Big Ten for hitting percentage, fourth for opponent hitting percentage, fifth in assists, and sixth in both kills and aces. 

Hord and Gray are both in the Big Ten top five for hitting percentage. Blossom is second in assists. Parker is seventh in kills per set and fourth in service aces. Defensively, Hord is fourth in blocks and White is fourth in digs. 

All this is to say Penn State’s stellar sophomores and senior leaders (Tori Gorrell and White) are starting to look deadly, and as the tournament comes ever closer, I’m looking at this year as a potential starting point in a new era of Penn State preeminence. After all, it has to hurt to lose the record for most championship wins to Stanford, the same team that snapped State’s 109-match win streak. 

I don’t want to overblow this: Penn State has lost to both Wisconsin and Nebraska, the latter in a 5-set instant classic (which to me demonstrated just how well Penn State is playing these days). They also lost to Stanford and split two matches with Pittsburgh in the non-conference season. 

On top of that, the Nittany Lions only have a few more matches against top teams. They face Illinois (whose star has fallen this season), Wisconsin and Minnesota to close out the regular season. But they only played Nebraska and Minnesota once this season, so Penn State’s RPI is relatively low – for PSU standards – at 12. 

It’s unlikely that any team will come close to the power Penn State wielded for close to a decade again. Too many girls are entering the sport; there is too much talent for one team to monopolize. But even in its recent off years, Penn State has managed to keep their heads above water. And depending on how the Nittany Lions play against Wisconsin and Minnesota, Penn State’s years of “build” seasons may be giving way to one reminiscent of the good ol’ days.

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