They are heading back again.
The No. 1 Nittany Lions (14-1, 4-0 Big Ten) are going back to the state of Illinois for the second time this season. But what’s so special about Illinois?
That’s where the Lions suffered their only blunder of the season, a 3-2 loss to unranked Oregon State at the Chicago Classic almost a month ago.
Since then, the Lions have rolled off eight straight wins and have dominated opponents 24-2 in set scores –– including a 3-0 sweep of No. 10 Minnesota last weekend.
The Lions will look to keep the ball rolling as they face Northwestern on Friday night at 8 p.m. in Evanston before traveling to take on Illinois Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Champaign.
“I think [the Minnesota win] was a big step forward for us, but we have to stay focused,” sophomore libero Dominique Gonzalez said. “Each team is going to be tough, and these road teams are going to have big crowds, as well. We just have to be really focused for each match.”
Last season, the Lions defeated the Wildcats in both matches, but needed five sets to down them at home. The Lions have won 18 straight matches against the purple and white dating back to 2003.
The Fighting Illini, on the other hand, have given the Lions some trouble lately. Even though Penn State holds a 37-8 all-time record against the Illini, they have come up short three of the last four matches, including two losses last season.
Of the 17 players on the Lions’ roster, nine of them have never been a part of a Lions team that has defeated the Illini and coach Russ Rose is looking for his players to play with extra fire this weekend to change that.
“I don’t look at that,” Rose said of the Lions’ overall record against Illinois, “because Megan Courtney is a freshman and Micha [Hancock has] been setting. This will be the third time that she’s played against Northwestern and Illinois. She has a two-match losing streak against Illinois, so she has to play better because she has a losing streak.”
The Lions seem to understand the importance of playing at their highest level at all times because they do not want the feeling in their stomachs that they had after the loss to the Beavers.
For junior outside hitter Deja McClendon, this weekend is more than just another weekend in conference play. It is an opportunity to show the growth of the program from last season.
“Personally for me it’s about proving to myself that we’re not last year’s team, and I think this past weekend we did something like that,” McClendon said. “I think that was really mentally good for us. Every weekend is tough in the Big Ten, so every weekend counts. You can’t let down.”