What do Penn State, Wisconsin, and Minnesota all have in common?
Besides being members of the Big Ten, arguably the best conference in collegiate women’s volleyball with seven teams ranked in the top 25, they are all undefeated at home.
The No. 1 Nittany Lions (12-1, 2-0 Big Ten) are also undefeated in away matches at opponents’ home courts, so something has got to give when the Lions take to the road this weekend for matches against the Badgers and Golden Gophers.
It will be the first time this season that the Lions get a taste of road action in the Big Ten, and the squad is looking forward to the challenge of playing in an environment with a strong showing of fans against the blue and white.
“It’s going to be interesting how we react and how we play together, and how we just come together basically,” sophomore setter Micha Hancock said. “I’m actually excited because I think this team really feeds off of energy, and sometimes we’re not the best at getting our own, like getting on going, but when it’s there, we’re in the game.”
The Lions will face the Badgers (13-2, 1-1 Big Ten) on Friday night before traveling to play the No. 10 Gophers (11-2, 2-0 Big Ten) on Saturday night. It will be the fourth meeting with a top 10 opponent this season for the Lions, who have won all three contests so far.
They have knocked off Stanford, Texas, and Nebraska –– all three teams are currently ranked in the top nine –– by a total set score of 9-3. Despite that accomplishment, the Lions are still hungry for more and look to extend their six-game winning streak to eight before returning home for practice next week.
Even though the Lions are slated for a primetime showdown with the Gophers on Saturday night, they are not going to overlook a stingy Badger team that is just three wins away from matching the win total of all of last season.
“All of the games have the same value, so to pretend like I’m talking about Minnesota instead of Wisconsin would be so opposite of the way I roll,” head coach Russ Rose said.
There’s no doubt that the match against the Gophers will be more challenging. The Gophers’ roster features eight upperclassmen and a duo that is a major reason why they lead the conference in hitting percentage with a .341 clip.
Junior middle blocker Tori Dixon leads the conference with a .508 hitting percentage while senior outside hitter Katherine Harms is tops in the Big Ten with 4.44 kills per set. Both players have drawn the close attention of Rose, as has the improvement of the Gophers’ ability to take care of the rock.
“Certainly they are two of a very strong group of players that they have,” Rose said. “Maybe the biggest difference is last year they maybe as a team were hitting .230, and now they’re hitting .350, so they’re leading the nation in hitting. Both of those players, along with [Ashley] Wittman, are three of the top attackers in the conference and have been since they arrived as freshmen.”
This weekend will serve as a measuring stick for how well the Lions play in a highly competitive conference away from Rec Hall. It will also test the team’s endurance as it prepares to play two matches back-to-back for the next three weekends.
“We’ve been practicing pretty long hours, so we’re used to being tired and stuff like that,” junior right side Ariel Scott said. “We have to play with high energy, especially on the road in front of other team’s fans.”
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