Volleyball Report: Penn State taking charge

Unpredictable has been the word most commonly uttered to describe this year’s Big Ten women’s volleyball season. Until the past few weeks, there was a genuine sentiment that any team had a chance to pull off a win, regardless of the matchup. However, as so often has been the case in this conference over the past decade, Penn State has asserted itself and begun to separate from the rest of the pack.

At 11-1, the Nittany Lions are one match ahead of Nebraska in the Big Ten standings, yet the gap between Penn State and the rest of the conference has begun to emerge. Last weekend, the Big Ten’s most iconic program took a trip to the state of Michigan to face the Wolverines and the Spartans in their home gyms, with the latter match a chance for the Nittany Lions to avenge their only league loss. Remove one set from the weekend and Penn State may have played six of the best sets of volleyball this conference has seen all season.

After dropping the first set to Michigan, Penn State won the next six by an average of 6.5 points, totaling just 2.3 errors per set and hitting .392 as a team. That effort included a hitting percentage of .451 against Michigan State where the Nittany Lions totaled just five attack errors in the straight set sweep. Following the loss to the Spartans to open the Big Ten season, Penn State made it a point of emphasis to not lose leads going forward, having lost advantages of 20-15 and 23-19 in sets 1 and 2 against Michigan State back in September. Penn State made a statement to the rest of the league on Saturday night that not only will it not lose leads, but the Nittany Lions may not drop another match before the end of the regular season.

The success of Penn State this fall can be attributed to numerous experienced players throughout the lineup, the gameplan of the coaching staff and head coach Russ Rose’s impact, but the efforts of senior outside hitter Deja McClendon may not be getting the attention they deserve.

McClendon turned heads in 2010 by winning National Freshman of the Year and being named the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, as Penn State won its fourth consecutive national title. In that first season as a Nittany Lion, McClendon averaged 3.43 kills per set and hit .331 on her way to second-team All-America status. McClendon would continue her All-American level of play for the next two seasons but gradually the statistics and impact of her play changed. The Penn State coaching staff and McClendon herself have acknowledged that the difference she has made this season is beyond the numbers that are typically associated with the nation’s top players.

Big Ten Overall
Team Record Pct. Record Pct.
Penn State 11-1 .917 20-2 .909
Nebraska 10-2 .833 17-4 .810
Minnesota 9-3 .750 21-4 .840
Michigan State 7-5 .583 18-6 .750
Wisconsin 7-5 .583 18-6 .750
Purdue 7-5 .583 16-7 .696
Northwestern 6-6 .500 14-10 .583
Illinois 6-6 .500 10-12 .455
Michigan 5-7 .417 15-8 .652
Ohio State 2-10 .167 14-10 .583
Iowa 1-11 .083 10-14 .417
Indiana 1-11 .083 9-14 .391

“What has really been the key for Deja has been that she is one of our best passers and she is our best left side blocker,” Rose said. “Other teams have an outside hitter that gets 20 kills and hits .300, but our outside hitter passes 80 percent of the serves and is one of our best defensive players in the back row.”

With players like Ariel Scott, Katie Slay and Megan Courtney on the roster racking up kills, Penn State can afford to have McClendon focus on areas that don’t typically show up on the stat sheet. Coaches track each player’s passing numbers throughout a match and McClendon has consistently been one of Penn State’s best.

“I’m really proud of the development I’ve made in my defense, back row specifically,” McClendon said. “I came in as a blank slate and didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself playing defense and Kaleena (assistant coach and former Penn State libero Kaleena Davidson) has helped me so much.”

While the internal passing numbers may not be available, McClendon has increased her digs per set average in each season and is currently second on the team in the category with 211 digs, an average of 2.74 per set. Add to that the fact that McClendon is still one of the Big Ten’s best offensive threats, ranking second on the team in kills, and the Nittany Lion left side is having a Player of the Year type campaign.

McClendon’s leadership has also been one of the unquantifiable aspects of her game. A mature player who’s composure has impressed even from her early days, she represents a senior class that includes three All-American starters. After the loss to Michigan State to start Big Ten play, it was that group that took the team aside to educate them on the culture of Penn State volleyball.

“We got the team together and talked about the Penn State tradition,” McClendon said. “How the girls that came before us would have never let those sets slip away and how to better ourselves in practice.”

The message has taken hold as Penn State has been more consistent as of late, cutting down on mistakes and holding on to leads against some of the best competition in the nation.

If the senior from Louisville and the rest of her decorated class can keep up this level of play, they should have a chance to finish off their careers the way they started, in a rainstorm of confetti. 

Live on BTN/BTN2GO this week:

No. 17 Michigan at Illinois – Wednesday 7:30 ET

Both of these teams are trying to string together a couple of wins. Neither one has been able to sweep a Big Ten weekend and this mid-week match is vital for each team’s hopes of reaching the postseason.

Both the Wolverines and the Illini bounced back following losses in their first match last week. Wednesday night will represent a rematch of a five-setter between these two that saw wildly different levels of play throughout.

Illinois should get its regular contribution from Jocelynn Birks, while Michigan has been able to count on Lexi Erwin. This matchup will likely come down to the contributions of freshman Abby Cole for the Wolverines and second left side hitter Morganne Criswell for the Illini.

No. 11 Nebraska at No. 9 Minnesota – Sunday 3:30 ET 

One week into the second half of the conference season and any matchup of top three teams looms large in the race for the Big Ten title. Nebraska begins a stretch of five consecutive matches against ranked opponents with three of those matches on the road, including Sunday’s trip to Minneapolis.

The Gophers have been undefeated at the Sports Pavilion this season but were swept in the first meeting with the Huskers. How will Hugh McCutcheon manage his substitutions to combat Kelsey Robinson? The Huskers’ senior had a field day when these two teams clashed back in early October, tallying 21 kills while hitting .450.

A loss for either one of these teams makes the task that much more difficult to catch a Penn State team that is hitting its stride. Nebraska is hoping to stay within in one match of the Nittany Lions prior to the regular season finale where Penn State and Nebraska will meet for the only time this season at the Devaney Center.

About Mike Wolf Mike Wolf is a BTN announcer and calls Big Ten volleyball matches on the Big Ten Network. His Volleyball Reports will appear on BTN.com every Tuesday for the rest of the Big Ten volleyball season. You can also follow our extended volleyball coverage on Twitter with @BTNvolleyball.

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