In a conference that currently has five teams ranked in the top 25, Penn State sees itself in the driver’s seat with its magic number dwindling.
With only a handful of games remaining, the Nittany Lions need one win to clinch a share of the Big Ten title and two to take it outright. Both feats can be accomplished this weekend against conference opponents Indiana and No. 21 Purdue.
Only speaking briefly about the possibility of clinching Penn State’s 15th conference title, coach Russ Rose was aware of what the team was up against throughout the year.
“To have an opportunity to win the conference is great because it’s so competitive,” Rose said. “Any time you’re relevant in a conference like this, you have to feel good about it.”
Outside hitter Deja McClendon has been in this position before, helping lead Penn State to the conference title as a freshman in 2010, en route to winning the national championship later that year.
With this year’s postseason very much in sight, McClendon knows the goal the Lions have down the stretch and into the NCAA tournament.
“If we can play at a solid level and our lows aren’t that low, I think we’ll be in a good place for the postseason,” McClendon said.
Although some like to focus on banners and the prospects of the big picture, Rose and the veterans understand that nothing has been given to them yet and work still remains to be done.
Penn State has four remaining matches, starting with the trip to Indiana this weekend, meeting up with the Hoosiers on Friday and the Boilermakers the following night.
The Lions handily defeated both opponents earlier in the season, but they expect to be tested the second time around.
Despite the fact that Indiana is near the bottom of the conference standings, Penn State recognizes the Hoosiers’ ability to play up to the competition, including a five-set battle against Nebraska and a victory against Purdue, both coming in the venue the Lions will be visiting on Friday.
“We had a challenging match with [Indiana] and didn’t play well,” Rose said. “They have our attention.”
Saturday’s match against Purdue also appears to be a challenge more than just on paper.
The Lions will be visiting the Boilermakers’ basketball facility that has a capacity of more than 14,000, so they are bracing for a significantly larger crowd than usual. But the team looks at this as an opportunity for growth.
“It’s a great opportunity for your kids to see how they handle all the challenges and distractions that you can experience in an environment like that,” Rose said. “That’s a great challenge.”
With these obstacles ahead and opponents trying to play spoiler, McClendon knows how difficult it can still be at this point.
“Every team can come out and beat us,” McClendon said. “We have to be ready.”