With an ensemble featuring the likes of 2011 All Big-Ten honorees Katie Slay, Ariel Scott and Deja McClendon, any additional player making an impact on the volleyball court can be considered the cherry on top.
That cherry on top for No. 1 Penn State (16-1, 6-0), as seen the past two weeks, is middle hitter Nia Grant.
“It sure seemed like Nia had about as good a weekend as a person could have,” coach Russ Rose said following wins against Wisconsin and then-No. 10 Minnesota two weekends ago.
Grant ended that weekend with 19 kills and just one error, along with a team-leading .760 hitting percentage.
Grant, a sophomore, had her finest performance last season in her collegiate debut on Aug. 27, 2011, when the No. 1 Nittany Lions hosted No. 2 USC.
The middle hitter delivered 11 kills on 17 errorless swings as the Lions defeated the Trojans, 3-2, in Rec Hall.
Through the first 13 matches of 2012, Grant had played serviceably — registering 68 kills and 22 errors.
Suddenly, beginning with the win at Wisconsin on Sept. 28, it appeared as if Grant had returned to prime form this season.
Grant credits much of her success to her teammates, namely McClendon and Scott, the team’s leaders in kills.
“They are amazing players and they make me better, even in practice,” Grant said. “I just get better every day [because of them].”
With teammates and Penn State faithful hoping for an encore performance at Northwestern and Illinois this past Friday and Saturday, they got it — depending on which match they saw.
Against Northwestern, Grant turned in a solid performance with eight kills to just three errors. Coincidentally, the Lions won 3-0.
The next night against Illinois, the Lions were lucky to escape the Prairie State with a tightly contested, 3-2, win.
Against the Fighting Illini, Penn State’s attack percentage dipped to .276, well below its season average of .313. Grant’s regular season attack percentage of .359 also towered over her percentage against Illinois of .062.
Setter Micha Hancock said the performance of the hitters makes her passing better.
“In a way we make each other’s jobs easier,” Hancock said. “Say Deja passes the ball and it’s perfect, I can run the middle so we all just go off each other.”
When asked about the Lions’ offensive stars, Rose pointed out each player’s strengths and weaknesses, including McClendon’s shortcomings against double blocks.
“We need to spread it out because Deja’s not the type of hitter that can carry a team against a big double block,” Rose said.
Luckily for McClendon, this weekend’s opponent, Indiana, is one of the weaker blocking teams in the Big Ten (1.99 blocks per set, No. 11 in the Big Ten), which could allow Grant time to rebound from her poor outing against Illinois.
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