For the past seven weeks, in the back of their minds, some of the Penn State women’s volleyball players had something bothering them.
The No. 8 Nittany Lions (23-4, 13-3 Big Ten) erased that thought Saturday night against No. 9 Illinois (21-5, 13-3).
It was the Illini that defeated Penn State in its Big Ten opener — causing the Lions to play catch-up in the conference title race ever since. Saturday, Penn State finally caught up by defeating Illinois in straight sets (25-18, 25-16, 25-18) at Rec Hall to earn a share of first place in the conference.
Senior libero Alyssa D’Errico said the few losses Penn State suffered this year all hurt, but the Sept. 24 loss to Illinois was a little harder because the Lions had a match point but were unable to put the Illini away.
Freshman outside hitter Deja McClendon agreed — while unable to hide a big smile while talking about Saturday’s win.
“It’s always kind of in the back of your head because you know they’re above you,” McClendon said of Illinois. “Personally, to play them and beat them, just kind of boosts my confidence.”
McClendon was one of three Lions to finish with double-digit kills, tallying 12. Senior opposite hitter Blair Brown led the team with 13, while freshman outside hitter Ariel Scott had 10.
Coach Russ Rose believed his team was more competitive than in the earlier loss at Illinois. One factor in the Lions’ performance was the play of Brown.
“Blair played to be the best player on the floor,” Rose said. “Last time we played, she didn’t step up into that position. This was a nice transition, in my eyes, to see her do that.”
Rose also attributed Penn State’s success to better ball-handling and defense. Freshman Ali Longo and senior Cathy Quilico paced the Lions’ defense with 12 digs and 10 digs, respectively. D’Errico added eight digs, while all three defenders each contributed one service ace.
D’Errico said the Lions stopped Illinois from going on scoring runs Saturday — something they struggled to do in the first matchup with the Illini. Strong defense from both teams caused a few lengthy rallies, which elicited applause to acknowledge the players’ effort from the 3,563 fans in Rec Hall.
Rose said he was happy with nearly every facet of the game, but he isn’t ready to declare his team front-runners just yet.
“We can’t pretend that we’re some juggernaut team here,” Rose said.
The sweep of Illinois did give the Lions an idea of how far they’ve come since the start of conference play, D’Errico said. The senior is happy with the position the team is in after the win.
“We’ve put ourselves in a good situation to be able to achieve one of our goals in winning the Big Ten,” D’Errico said. “We have four matches left. We’ve got to bring our ‘A’-game for all of those and hopefully close out with at least a co-championship.”