Even after a disappointing end to last season and losing multiple All-Conference players to graduation, Penn State will still enter its 2019 campaign with high expectations.
Following a 2018 season that was marked by large-scale roster turnover, injuries and the consistent need to mold a new team on the fly, this past offseason was one of much less uncertainty and unrest for the Nittany Lions.
After racking up 33 wins and qualifying for the NCAA Final Four in 2017, coach Russ Rose saw his squad undergo massive changes, ushering in an influx of new, inexperienced talent throughout the roster. The campaign was not pretty at times, but Penn State did tally 25 wins and advanced to another Regional Final in the NCAA tournament.
However, for the third time in the last five years, the Nittany Lions were unable to qualify for the Final Four, falling in the Elite Eight to the eventual national champions, Stanford.
While it won’t be the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten, Penn State will once again be contenders in a very strong conference, despite losing a couple of impact players from last season.
All-Big Ten honores Bryanna Weiskircher and Nia Reed graduated in the spring, along with graduate transfer — and calming locker room presence — Taylor Leath.
Stepping in to fill Weiskircher’s role at setter is sophomore Gabby Blossom. The second-year player excelled in her limited time on the court last season, and will be one of the most important players on a team that is looking to contend for a Big Ten championship.
Jonni Parker’s emergence last season as one of the best freshman in the country gave Penn State a major boost on offense all season long.
In her first year at the Division I level, Parker led the team in kills and points, and the mere presence of the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year and AVCA Third Team All-American can quell the fears that the Nittany Lions will not be able to replace Reed’s production on the outside.
Penn State also saw its young middle blockers blossom last season, including a terrific year from Kaitlyn Hord that saw her end the season on the All-Big Ten Second Team.
In the past, the leadership in the locker room and on the court has come from the likes of former AVCA All-Americans Simone Lee, Haleigh Washington, and more recently Weiskircher, Reed and Leath.
This season, the leadership will have to come from other veterans on the squad, most notably Kendall White and Tori Gorrell.
While Gorrell bounced around and didn’t earn much playing time last season, White established herself as one of the premier defensive specialists in the nation. The reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year has long been one of the more vocal leaders on the team and this season should be no different in that respect.
This year also marks a dramatic drop-off from years past in terms of recruiting for the Nittany Lions.
A year ago, Penn State stood atop the VolleyballMag.com women’s top recruiting classes poll. But, the blue and white are ranked outside of the top 10 in this year’s rankings, lagging behind fellow Big Ten foes in Nebraska and Purdue.
The Nittany Lions were still able to sign three of the top 50 players in the PrepVolleyball.com rankings in the form of a trio of outside hitters: Gabi Bailey, Lauren Clark and Sydney Ferguson.
Penn State will host three straight games to open the season, and the Nittany Lions will debut their new-look lineup by hosting Hofstra, Holy Cross and Wichita State at Rec Hall.
The schedule certainly doesn’t get any easier, with Penn State preparing to host the Big-10/Pac-12 Challenge just two weeks later, a slate that includes a rematch with Stanford.
The Nittany Lions’ conference schedule is loaded with high-profile matches, as it typically is. Penn State will face the likes of Nebraska, Minnesota, Purdue, Illinois and Wisconsin—all of which were formidable opponents last season.
For Penn State to succeed in the Big Ten with what is still a largely young roster, the Nittany Lions will need their prized sophomores and veterans alike to make a serious impact in their first match and beyond.