By Ethan Kasales for VolleyballMag.com
STATE COLLEGE, Pennsylvania — For the first time since it won it all in 2007, Penn State is going into an NCAA Tournament without a player who has won a national championship.
This year’s team, a product of the storied program that won it all in 1999, then four in a row from 2007 to 2010, and back to back in 2013-14, has some of the elements of those former title teams.
These Nittany Lions, who stand 24-5 after finishing tied for third with Minnesota and Nebraska in the Big Ten at 17-3, have the same goal as any Penn State team as it heads into the program’s 39th consecutive NCAA Tournament.
“I think some of the championship teams that we’ve had were very competitive and were self-starters and were able to monitor each other’s behavior,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said. “They were able to keep themselves on task and were very rarely distracted even when other teams made runs.
“I wouldn’t say this team has demonstrated all of those things up to this point in time, nor should they. This team is different than those teams. Every team is different, as I think most players are different from some of the players in the past.”
Penn State, seeded No. 11, plays host to Ivy League-champion Princeton at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Friday in Rec Hall. It’s preceded by the 5 p.m. matchup between Patriot League-champion American and Colonial Athletic Association-winner Towson.
Rose (101-31), who owns the record for most NCAA tournament wins, met with the media Tuesday and discussed everything from Penn State’s comeback victory over Wisconsin last Friday, its Saturday loss to Minnesota, and the common characteristics of his championship-winning teams.
Against Wisconsin, Penn State fell behind 0-2 but came back and won 19-25, 15-25, 25-12, 25-22, 15-11 behind 13 kills each by Tori Gorrell and Serena Gray and 12 from Jonni Parker.
Then the Nittany Lions had a chance to claim a share of their 18th Big Ten title in program history with a win Saturday, but after winning the first set, Minnesota came away with a 19-25, 25-20, 25-20, 25-23 victory. Canadian Gorrell, a 6-foot-2 senior from Oakville, Ontario, was big again, this time with a career-high 17 kills, while Gray and Kaitlyn Hord had 13 each.
“I thought Tori played really well last weekend,” Rose said. “I thought that was probably the greatest takeaway was how well she played last weekend in two big matches against two top-10 opponents, so I felt really good about her effort last weekend.
“I thought our middles (Gray and Hord) played well.”
Parker, a 6-foot sophomore from Casstown, Ohio, who was the VolleyballMag.com national freshman of the year last season, leads the team with 353 kills and has 64 blocks.
“I think this team has grown a lot this year,” Parker said. “We’ve overcome a lot of things. I think over the past couple weeks we’ve gotten better at coming together as a team, making sure we don’t let one (loss) become two, and overcoming different obstacles. If one person’s off, another person steps up. We’re all playing really well as a team right now and communicating really well.”
Gray, a 6-2 sophomore from Temple City, Calif., has 279 kills and 79 blocks, 15 solo. Hord, a 6-4 sophomore from Lexington, Ky., has 279 kills and leads with 134 blocks, 20 solo.
Gorrell has 229 kills and 64 blocks, nine solo.
In 2018, Penn State made it to the NCAA Regional final, losing to eventual champion Stanford. During that run, Gorrell stepped up when Gray was sidelined with an injury. Then she successfully transitioned from middle blocker to outside hitter ahead of her final season.
“I just think she’s really continued to expand certain parts of her game,” Rose said. “I think she’s just really working hard and hitting the ball hard and high.
“She’s doing as much as she can to help the team. I think that’s what you would want from a fifth-year senior and somebody who’s played as much as she’s played previously. Like I said, I’m real pleased with where Tori is right now. She’ll have a real big impact on how we do heading forward into the tournament.”
Another big reason for Penn State’s success this season has been the standout play of sophomore setter Gabby Blossom, who finished her first regular season as a starter with 11.36 assists per set, second in the Big Ten behind only Wisconsin’s Sydney Hilley.
Blossom displays tremendous range and has drawn a comparison to Penn State great Micha Hancock — who set the Nittany Lions to the 2013 and ’14 NCAA title — for her competitive nature. She’s had a team-high nine double-doubles.
“She competes hard,” Rose said. “That’s really one of her main characteristics. I thought that was one of the things that Micha did really well as well when she was here. I thought she was a great competitor.
“Gabby came in with much more setting experience than Micha. Micha came in with an incredible serve and a great competitive spirit. Gabby is an experienced setter but doesn’t have the serve, for sure. I’ve been pleased with Gabby.”
Blossom was named one of three captains this season alongside Parker and seldom-used senior DS Kristin Krause.
“We have so many goals as a team,” Blossom said. “Playing for this program, you grew up watching them win Big Ten championships and national championships. That’s why me and I know all my teammates come here is for those moments.
“You know it’s going to be hard at some points, but you have those dreams in the back of your mind and you have teammates who you want to push through for, because I know I have teammates who go hard every single day. If they’re going hard for me, I want to go hard for them.”
Senior Kendall White, the only libero in Penn State history to earn first-team All-American honors last season, is now just 15 digs away from breaking the program record of 1,957 held by Kaleena (Walters) Davidson.
White gathered her teammates at midcourt after the Minnesota loss.
“Her main message was just to stay focused on our goal of the big picture, which is winning a national championship, and we can’t let this loss get in our way,” Hord said. “We played so well against Wisconsin the night before, so we just have to focus on that energy we had the night before and bring it like that every time we play.”
Princeton (17-7, 10-2 Ivy League) avenged a 3-2 loss to Yale less than a week earlier when it turned around and beat the Bulldogs 3-1 at home at Dillon Gymnasium in a one-match, winner-take-all playoff to secure its postseason berth on November 22.
Devon Peterkin leads the Tigers with 280 kills, while Maggie O’Connell has 240. Junior middle blocker Clare Lenihan has 222 kills and team-highs in blocks (76) and aces (23).
American (24-7, 15-1 Patriot) won its conference title after 3-1 victories over Navy and Army in the Patriot tournament. Danish outside hitter Helena Elbaek leads the Eagles with 373 kills, while senior libero Kristen Largay has at least 500 digs for the third straight season. Olivia Wassner and Chiara Bosetti are both extremely dangerous from the service line with 61 and 54 aces, respectively.
Towson (28-2, 16-0 CAA) beat Elon 3-1 and swept James Madison to win the CAA title and its automatic bid. The Tigers have won 22 matches in a row.
Towson assistant coach Megan Shifflett Bachmann played defensive specialist for Rose on three national championship teams from 2008-10. Towson has had two players surpass 300 kills so far this season in Emily Jarome and Olivia Finckel. Finckel is also one of three Tigers, including Silvia Grassini and Lydia Wiers, who have more than 100 blocks.
“We played American last year, so I’m familiar with Barry (Goldberg) and his team,” Rose said.
“Towson’s one of the teams that has only lost two matches during the year. There’s a lot to be said for teams that come from different conferences that have only lost one match or a couple of matches, because winning is a great habit to have ingrained in your players in a sport, especially one that deals with rally scoring.”