There are plenty of stories about volleyball families with strong school ties.
But the Pierces from Eden, N.Y.?
“They are a Penn State family,” Russ Rose said.
In more ways than can be imagined.
Robert Pierce played volleyball at Penn State from 1985-1989, earned All-American honors and once held the program single-season record for service aces.
His wife, Kiernan, was a member of the Penn State track and field team from 1984-1989.
And all three of their children are or have been Nittany Lions, including current defensive specialist Lainy Pierce, as her teams heads into the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship in Kansas City. Lainy, a 5-foot-8 senior serving specialist, and her teammates are 33-1 and play Nebraska on Thursday night.
Lainy’s older sister, Kendall, who graduated in 2015 with two NCAA titles to her credit.
The youngest, Declan, is a redshirt freshman on the Penn State men’s team.
And Kendall’s husband is Aaron Russell, a former Penn State All-American, a 2016 Olympian and currently playing professionally In Italy.
“It’s in their blood,” Rose said of the Pierce clan. “They also are all stunning-looking people, so their Christmas cards are keepers. The family is terrific.”
Robert Pierce said Penn State was the right place for his kids. “We believe in the university,” he said. “We had great experiences there.
“It wasn’t easy for us there and it hasn’t been easy for our kids. In this day and age in the world we live in, you have to put your kids in the hands of people you trust. I have 100 percent faith in (Penn State men’s coach) Mark Pavlik and Russ Rose. They are good people who I know are going to take care of my kids. I know they will be really hard on them, but I trust the processes.
“If it was easy everybody would be doing it, but it’s not. It’s hard. Kendall had a great experience and you look at the woman Lainy has become and she’s had a tremendous experience. The coaching staffs have done a great job and the university has done a great job.”
Kendall Pierce said being a student-athlete at Penn State was rewarding on multiple levels.
“Almost daily I think about how much Penn State, and specifically the volleyball program, has given me,” she said in an email interview from Italy earlier this week. “When people hear our entire family are not only Penn Staters by Penn State athletes, they assume it was a family thing and something the kids had no choice about. There never was a moment we felt pressured to go there.
“Sure, we grew up thinking college simply was Penn State, but we also grew up knowing Penn State volleyball was one of the best programs out there and who as a young kid doesn’t want to dream about becoming your best?
“I walked away with an understanding that I had just been a part of something bigger than myself. I think what the Pierce kids are thankful for the most is the understanding and compassion our parents have supported us with. Ask any former player, playing at Penn State is the toughest but most rewarding challenge they will ever face in their young adult life. But the impact each of these young ladies make not only on each other, but also inspiring young generations of girls is what continues to build our program and volleyball around the world. My sister and I are super-blessed to be prime examples of young dreamers inspired by those before us turned into players themselves, who hopefully have inspired some younger generation of girls as well.”
Lainy’s road to Penn State
Lainy had offers to other schools and visited one.
“I remember that trip we all took as a family to see that university,” Kendall said. “Between the two of us, it was only our second other college unofficial visit we had and would ever take to see a campus besides Penn State.”
But Lainy really wanted to go to Penn State. Rose told her should could walk on.
Kendall didn’t take it well.
“And not because the program was too tough for me or that I wanted to leave, but because I couldn’t understand a life where I got to live our shared dream of being a part of the Penn State volleyball program, while the one who really deserved it didn’t get her chance,” Kendall recalled.
“We shared a bedroom all our lives until I left for college. And above our beds, our ceilings were covered in Penn State and USA Volleyball magazine clippings. We had posters, pictures and articles taped up there so every night when we went to sleep we’d go to sleep with our dreams above us right there.
“I remember going into (Rose’s) office and sitting on my former teammate Megan Courtney’s lap crying and blubbering out the entire truth to Coach. I blubbered on and Coach sat and listened. He said, ‘It will all work out for your sister and don’t miss your serve the next time I put you in.’ ”
Rose was right. Lainy walked on at Penn State and eventually earned a scholarship.
“Lainy got better,” Kendall said. “She stayed driven and she became a leader for her team and emerged as the greatest we had ever seen her. She really came into her own. Fast forward to the day we walked out of coach’s office with a new offer on the table.
“We both tried playing it cool but shrieked and did one of those girly giddy dance move things than flawlessly executed our lame Parent Trap handshake as soon as we stepped outside. When we went on that visit, I could have guessed right then and there her career would have been very successful with a lot of playing time, but I knew Lainy truly was meant to be a Penn Stater.”
“I looked at other schools, but in the end nothing compared to Penn State,” she said. “When dad brought Kendall and I to our first Penn State match and then we got into middle school and high school and started going to camps, I fell in love with the girls and the program. All of us found our way to Penn State but I never realized how cool it is that my sister went there and my younger brother is there now.
“We’re all Penn Staters and I’ve never realized how amazing that is.”
The Pierce sisters, very different, but then again…..
Observers say the Pierce sisters are very different, but at the same time very much alike.
“It wasn’t until Lainy’s first year at Penn State that coaches started to realize how different we actually were,” Kendall said. “Sure, we work on the same wave length and can telepathically connect on a scary level, but Lainy is far different from me and I think that is the greatest thing about her.
“We had always been paired as ‘the sisters.’ Regardless of our 1½-year age difference and skill, we always were thought of as the same age, level and skill. That was lucky for me because she was far more advanced than I was.
“I think a part of the coaching staff thought if they brought Lainy on to the squad they would essentially be getting two Kendalls. Man, did they luck out. Instead, they got a fiery, passionate and fiercer player. She always has been my backbone. So growing up with two backbones, that should sum up her guts and her personality pretty well.”
Lainy has been a serving specialist, getting her shot as a freshman when Penn State won the NCAA title.
“Lainy does a good job of reading things well and is really competent in her role,” Robert Pierce said. “She will do whatever Coach expects her to do. She anticipates the direction the game is going and knows when Coach is going to call her in before he does. They call that volleyball IQ, but she reads body language and understands the flow of the game and her teammates.
“She has a good level-headedness about her teammates and the program and that’s something coach has openly said he values quite a bit.”
Rose sees that.
“Lainy is similar to her sister in that she cares about the team and will work at finding a way to help the team,” Rose said. “She’s low-maintenance as far as drama. She’s a good server. She comes in during tough situations and isn’t afraid to serve it tough and impact the outcome.
“I feel good about Lainy. She played as a freshman a little bit (on Penn State’s last title team) and the serving specialist is a tough role to play, especially on some teams where passing is not your strength or you are going in for someone who is relied upon to be a back-row attacker.
“She’s played her role well and has been a great representative of her family and Penn State. She’s an impressive young lady and will have great success in the future as well.”
Lainy said she’s taken some simple advice from Rose to heart over the years.
“Since my freshman year, the one thing coach has made very clear is the role of anybody coming off the bench, especially back-row players, is to come in and have energy and make a difference,” she said.
“That’s what coach looks for from me and it’s what I expect from myself. I want to make a positive impact and make things better and bring some energy and get the girls going. It’s not easy. Freshman year I kept reminding myself to go in and serve and cause some chaos. You don’t always have to get an ace, but maybe you will create a situation where there is a free ball or the other team won’t have all three of their options available.”
Her father relates her role on the team to a scene in the Academy Award-winning movie “The Right Stuff.”
“There is the one scene where Alan Shepard is sitting on top of the rocket and says, ‘Please don’t let me (screw) up.’ And then NASA comes on and he says, ‘Everything is OK.’ You know things like that go through these kids’ heads when they go back there in those situations,” Robert said.
“Being a serving sub or a DS off the bench is very difficult. Lainy has done a very good job through training and her toughness and understands that she’s done it a million times and is in control out there.
“A lot of that goes back to my brother, Stephen (who coached Lainy at Eden High School where Lainy was part of five New York state-championship teams, the first of those five titles as an eighth-grader), coaching her and teaching her how serving can be a weapon and a force. You don’t always have to get an ace, but try to create situations that let your team have an advantage.
“She’s done a good job of approaching things with the right mentality and with calming her nerves. She knows that things might not work this time, but they will in the future. Coach continues to go to her. When you have the best coach in the country, someone who is a legend, and they find some attribute in you that he feels is going to help his team, that’s pretty cool.”
Lainy lays plenty of praise on her older sister.
“When I found out Kendall committed to Penn State I was happy and I also was a little jealous,” Lainy said. “I was really excited for her to be able to realize that dream. At the same time if Kendall did something, I would learn from her mistakes. She’s been my idol my entire life. I watched her go through the Penn State program. She’s always told me I can do this. She’s been a huge factor not just with Penn State but in my entire life.”
Kendall Pierce, in turn, recites a grade-school story that best sums up Lainy.
“In her third-grade year, my fifth-grade team was playing in the Big East Coast Championships,” she said. “My team was coached by my dad and we made it all the way to the finals. Dad brought up Lainy probably because my mom told him he had to. Mid-match, Lainy marched right up to my dad and yanked on his shirt. ‘Put me in.’ Dad said, short and curt, ‘Not now, Lainy, go sit down.’
“Lainy said, ‘No, dad, Put me in. I’m a player and players play!’ She ended up going in and with her underhand serve actually won us the game. That’s how Lainy always has approached scary and big situations. Even if she didn’t believe in herself 100 percent, she did 95 percent and raked the remaining five without letting anyone know.
“From underhand serving in that big match as a kid as a third-grader to going in to serve for the last couple national-championship points as a freshman, she always has been my idol.”
And now Lainy Pierce has the opportunity to make it NCAA-title bookends for her and the large contingent of Penn State seniors and the two redshirt juniors on the team.
“This is pretty incredible,” said Lainy, who had an ace in Penn State’s sweep of Michigan State on Saturday that propelled the Nittany Lions into the national semifinals. “The thought of being able to go back to the final four is surreal.
“When I was a freshman I was wide-eyed and just went with it. We had incredible senior leaders when I was a freshman (and beat BYU in the final for the championship). Now we’re out there earning it and we’re the seniors and the leaders. That means a lot to all of us.
“The thought of returning and having the chance to get those bookends is incredible and we’re going to do everything possible to make it happen.”