“We lost three seniors who played an awful lot of matches and had a great deal of responsibility in terms of how the team functioned day-to-day. However, when people graduate, it creates an opportunity for others to step in and show what they can do.” Russ Rose, August 12, 2009
Last week, three days into preseason practice for the 2009 Penn State Women’s Volleyball team, gopsusports posted the 2009 Penn State Women’s Volleyball Outlook. It’s a great write-up (we assume Susan Bedsworth, Women’s Volleyball Contact for Penn State Athletic Communications, did most of the heavy-lifting, and deserves alot of credit).
Below are some highlights, along with our own observations and speculation. [Editor’s note: we have no inside information, and want to emphasize that no criticism of any player is intended nor is any implied. As far as DigNittanyVolleyball is concerned, we’re thrilled that each of these players chose to attend Penn State and we appreciate their hard work and commitment.]
New Team, New Opportunities
Penn State Head Coach Russ Rose understands that each team, no matter how many returning starters and how experienced it may be, is different, and that even small changes can have a big impact. When those changes include the graduation of AVCA National Player of the Year Nicole Fawcett, two-time AVCA First Team All-American Christa Harmotto, and starting libero Roberta Holehouse, he’s not going to let anyone rest on their laurels.
So even though the Penn State Women’s Volleyball team returns ten letterwinners (including AVCA All-Americans Blair Brown, Alisha Glass, Megan Hodge, and Arielle Wilson) from the 2008 National Championship squad, and welcomes three talented freshman recruits and two promising transfers, Rose doesn’t put much stock in Penn State’s #1 preseason national ranking and #1 Big Ten preseason ranking. As Rose observes “You can’t win a championship in August and I don’t think you can lose it then either. I think we’ll be good but we have a number of holes to fill.”
To fill those holes, Rose will be looking for contributions from returning veterans and from the five new players: freshmen Kristin Carpenter , Darcy Dorton, and Marika Racibarskas, and transfers Fatima Balza and Jessica Ullrich.
Two-time AVCA All-American Alisha Glass returns for her fourth season as Penn State’s starting setter, having directed the 2008 Penn State team to a rally-era record .390 hitting percentage and having led the NCAA with 12.50 assists per set.
Glass is among the veterans that Rose will be counting on to provide leadership for the 2009 team. “I hope Alisha’s leadership abilities have been taken up to a new level and that she realizes that this is her team. She’ll be judged by what she does with this team, not last year’s team.”
Glass will be backed up by Racibarskas and Carpenter. Interestingly, Rose commented that Racibarskas “might enable use to run a 6-2 at some point and allows us to generate some offense out of Alisha.” Rose experimented with the 6-2 as recently as the 2006 season, when he took a look at the two-setter system during the early part of the season with Glass and Jessica Yanz. That experiment was put on the back burner following a break-out match by Glass and the Nittany Lions on September 8, 2006 in Austin, Texas, against the then- #7 ranked Longhorns. Glass contributed a career-high 63 assists, with eight kills on .438 hitting and 16 digs, as Penn State rallied from a 2-0 deficit to defeat Texas 3-2 (27-30, 28-30, 30-28, 36-34, 15-13).
Racibarskas is a two-time PrepVolleyball.com High School All-American and a Volleyball Magazine Fab 50 selection in 2008, when she led her high school team to the New Jersey State Championship semi-finals. Her team won the State Championship in 2007. Rose says Racibarskas has “good experience and a physical nature that allows her to compete in the front row.”
Rose describes Carpenter (who competed for the victorious Red Team on December 21, 2008 in the inaugural Under Armour All-America Volleyball Match, where she was named “Hardest Hitter” in the Skills Competition), as an all-around player. Carpenter was the starting setter for the USA Junior National Team as a sophomore, the starting libero as a junior, and is listed on Penn State’s roster as an outside hitter, so the term “all-around” seems appropriate. Says Rose: “I think she might have some say as to who gets reps and makes contributions on the different areas of the court. She will certainly be on the floor.” Also listed at setter is Megan Shifflet.
For the 2009 season, Coach Rose will be relying heavily on returning AVCA All Americans Megan Hodge and Blair Brown. Hodge, who will be a four-year starter on the left side (and is likely to end her career joining Bev Oden (Stanford – 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992), Sarah Pavan (Nebraska – 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007), Logan Tom (Stanford – 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002), and Kerri Walsh (Stanford – 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999) as the only four-time AVCA First Team All Americans in NCAA Women’s Volleyball history), is another veteran Rose will be looking to for senior leadership. Rose wants the younger players to be able to count on Hodge as a mentor in the same way she counted on Fawcett and Harmotto. “That would be a great thing for Megan to be able to do her senior year.”
Brown started at Opposite for the Nittany Lions in 2008, when her .426 hitting percentage ranked third on the team. According to Coach Rose, Brown “improved a great deal” during 2008, when she garnered AVCA Second Team All American honors, and he “wouldn’t be surprised if she improves on that this season.”
Also competing for playing time will be 6-5 sophomore Katie Kabbes and highly-touted 6-2 freshman Darcy Dorton. Kabbes, who could see time on both the right and left sides, totaled 24 kills and 15 digs in limited playing time during the 2008 season. Penn State fans have been looking forward to the arrival of Dorton, the 2008 PrepVolleyball.com National Player of the Year and captain of the Junior National Team that won the 2008 NORSECA Championship, ever since she verbally committed to the Nittany Lions. (Dorton also competed for the victorious Red Team in the inaugural Under Armour All-America Volleyball Match, and was named “Best Passer” in the Skills Competition.) Although the fans have high expectations, Dorton will be facing tough competition for playing time in 2009, and so far Rose hasn’t given any indication of what role she may play.
With the graduation of Christa Harmotto, and an off-season injury to Kelsey Ream , middle hitter will be the least experienced position on the team. Former Big Ten Freshman of the Year and 2008 Second Team AVCA All American Arielle Wilson will be the primary middle hitter and the only returner with experience at the position.
The loss of Ream, who played sparingly in 2008 (mostly as a serving specialist), is not insignificant. As Rose explains, Ream was the third middle on a team with two All-American middles — Harmotto and Wilson — who nevertheless “made some great contributions in our run at the end of the year for the national championship.” She will be missed in 2009.
[Editors note: it’s unclear whether, or when, Ream may rejoin the team in 2009. We’ll keep our eyes open for any update.]
Rose also will be looking to Blair Brown and Fatima Balza to contribute in the middle. Whether Brown sees any significant time at middle hitter would appear to depend, at least in part, on the performance of Balza, Katie Kabbes, and Darcy Dorton. If Balza excels from the beginning, Rose may choose to leave Brown exclusively at Opposite. If, on the other hand, Balza doesn’t step in right away, or either Dorton or Kabbes plays well enough to win a spot in the rotation, Rose might give Brown a look in the middle.
Although Balza arrives at Penn State from Western Nebraska Community College with great Junior College credentials — she helped WNCC to the NJCAA National Championship in 2007, when she was selected the Region IX Freshman of the Year, and to a third place finish in the 2008 NJCAA Tournament, when she was selected as a First Team All-America team — the level of play will be faster and the skill level higher than she experienced in junior college, so it remains to be seen whether, and how quickly, she will be able to make the transition.
Although the libero position technically is up for grabs, the odds-on favorite to replace three-year starter Roberta Holehouse is Junior Alyssa D’Errico , who played in 36 matches in 2008, mostly as a defensive specialist but also as the libero when Holehouse was injured. Others who will compete for playing time are Kristin Carpenter, junior Cathy Quilico, junior transfer (from Purdue) Jessica Ullrich and sophomores Heather Tice and Megan Shifflett.
Though it’s unwise to read too much into preseason comments, Rose praises Ullrich, who started all 35 matches at Purdue last season at defensive specialist, as a player who “possesses a great serve, is a good passer and has experience playing at a higher level.” Certainly, Ullrich will be in the mix with Carpenter and Quilico for playing time as defensive specialist. Tice and Shifflett provide depth and are valued by Rose for “their energy and positive feel for the team.”
Coach Rose’s staff consists of two full-time assistant coaches — Dennis Hohenshelt, who is entering his fourth year on the staff, and Kaleena (Walters) Davidson, who is beginning her first (she is a rare example of a “coach to be named later,” as she was Kaleena Walters when she was hired, and following her recent marriage is now Kaleena Davidson) — second year Director of Volleyball Operations Nate Kitrush and volunteer assistant coach Adam Jarrett. From his comments in the 2009 Penn State Women’s Volleyball Outlook, it’s clear Coach Rose relies heavily on them and respects their energy and commitment.
The More Things Change. . .
The 2009 Women’s Volleyball season will involve both change and opportunity. Noone can predict whether the 2009 team will develop the team chemistry and competitive edge, and enjoy the good fortune (because luck — avoiding injury, illness and the random inability of officials to keep score, for example — does play a part in team success) to match or even approach the success of the 2007 and 2008 squads. What we can say is that the opportunity is there, and that Coach Rose is a master at motivating players to take advantage of opportunities. It may take some time, but we think it will be exciting to watch this Nittany Lion team grow. As Coach Rose said in an August 23, 2006 preseason interview:
“I’ve always been a big believer that women’s volleyball is not a sprint. It’s a long race. If you’re good at the end of the season then you can make some things happen. . . .The ranking today has no bearing on what happens in December. You just have to play hard and see what goes on.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same.