Looking to build off a 7-3 start, Penn State opens the Big Ten portion of its season Friday against Rutgers on the road.
The Scarlet Knights have enjoyed a surprisingly successful start to their season, sitting at 8-3 after the first four weeks of play.
That said, Rutgers is coming off a straight-set loss to Clemson in its last time out.
While the two squads’ records are nearly identical, the path each has taken to its mark has been quite different.
Penn State has already faced three ranked opponents this season, although it finished with a less-than-favorable 0-3 record in those matches.
On the other hand, Rutgers has yet to face a foe in the AVCA Top 25, and the No. 20 Nittany Lions will be its first challenge of that magnitude.
Last season, the Nittany Lions claimed victory in both of the programs’ meetings on March 12 and 13, each in straight sets.
The two teams faced off a number of times since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten in 2014, but those matches have been pretty one-sided in Penn State’s favor.
In fact, the Nittany Lions have taken the past 17 matches between the two teams, dating back to 2000, and only the 2001 contest made it past the third set.
Rutgers is looking to put that winless streak in the past, and this year’s team appears ready to put up a fight.
Having already surpassed the six wins it recorded last season, the Scarlet Knights are on track for their first winning season since 2012 — and they have the talent to accomplish just that.
Senior setter Inna Balyko — Rutgers’ lone first team All-Big Ten selection last season — leads the Scarlet Knights and ranks No. 10 in the Big Ten with 368 assists (9.95 per set).
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Redshirt senior middle blocker Shealyn McNamara is among the conference’s leaders in hitting percentage, coming in at No. 10 with a 0.376 average.
She is also near the top in total blocks, as she sits in fifth with 51.
Rejections at the net might be a common occurrence in this match, as three of the Big Ten’s leaders in total blocks will take the stage.
Senior middleblocker Kaitlyn Hord is third in the conference with 56 and sophomore middle blocker Allie Holland is No. 10 with 43.
One Nittany Lion is even more familiar with Friday’s opponent — she played for the scarlet and white for two years.
Redshirt junior outside hitter Anastasiya Kudryashova spent her freshman and sophomore seasons at Rutgers, playing in 28 matches for the Scarlet Knights before transferring to Penn State ahead of last season.
Kudryashova recorded 12 kills in two matches against her former team in the spring.
There will be a bit of difference in experience between the two head coaches, at least with their current teams.
This is Russ Rose’s 43rd season as the head man on Penn State’s sideline, while Caitlin Schweihofer is in just her second year at the helm of the Scarlet Knights after previous coaching stops at Northeastern and La Salle.
Along with representing Penn State’s first game against a Big Ten opponent, Friday’s match also marks the Nittany Lions’ first Big Ten road contest of the season.
The blue and white only played five conference matches away from Rec Hall last season, finishing 2-3.
In addition, three of Penn State’s first four Big Ten matches this season are on the road — no easy feat to start the conference slate.
The Nittany Lions are a team with championship aspirations, and as the competition on the court ramps up, the blue and white’s quest for an eighth national title comes into focus.
First serve between Penn State and Rutgers will be at 7 p.m. Friday at the Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway, New Jersey.
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