The Penn State women’s volleyball program held its first weekly media availability of the 2023 season Tuesday afternoon before practice at Rec Hall.
Head coach Katie Schumacher-Cawley, fifth-year senior setter Mac Podraza, and senior middle blocker Taylor Trammell answered questions ahead of this weekend’s season-opening Road 2 Tampa Bay Invitational. The No. 8 Nittany Lions will play No. 11 Florida Friday at 8 p.m. ET at Amalie Arena and No. 20 Georgia Tech Saturday at 6 p.m. at USF’s Yuengling Center. ESPN+ will stream both matches.
Schumacher-Cawley named Podraza and senior middle blocker Allie Holland as Penn State’s captains for the 2023 season during her press conference. Podraza and senior outside hitter Jess Mruzik were recently named preseason All-Big Ten honorees, with Podraza earning a unanimous selection from the conference’s head coaches.
Holland is coming off a first-team All-Big Ten season and has established herself as one of the premier players at middle blocker in the country heading into 2023. Holland and Trammell are an intimidating duo in terms of their blocking prowess and will help the Nittany Lions limit their opponents’ offensive options.
Penn State held a scrimmage against St. John’s last Friday at Rec Hall, offering fans a first look at this year’s team. All 19 Nittany Lions saw the floor in some capacity, including the program’s four true freshmen, who appeared composed and did some nice things when given an opportunity to contribute later in the exhibition.
Podraza and Trammell were selected as NIL brand ambassadors for the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, which is hosting this weekend’s matches in Tampa, Florida. They recently appeared on an episode of the Gameday. Every Day. podcast, where they discussed their excitement to begin the season and how to continue growing the game of volleyball. They come on at the 15:00 mark.
What are your thoughts on how the St. John’s scrimmage went last Friday?
“I thought it was nice to play someone else, to see our girls compete against another team. I thought we did some good things. I thought we played aggressively. I think St. John’s will be better than what they played in the Big East. It was nice to end a little bit of preseason on that.”
How do you feel that it can prepare your team for the regular season, especially when you have two ranked teams this weekend?
“I’m hoping it’s helped us. We’ve had a good preseason. We’re healthy, knock on wood. I think the team is excited to get on the floor and play against Florida and Georgia Tech. I think we’ll have a good practice today and tomorrow, get down there and use their facility. We’ll see what we got.”
Throughout the preseason, has anyone stood out to you or taken a big step forward?
“The team was here this summer and working out. I think they did a really good job of getting in shape and being ready to go right at the beginning of preseason. I think Jess Mruzik is a really, really good player, and I think she’s going to do some special things for us this year. I think Anjelina [Starck] had a great preseason. Allie [Holland] and Taylor [Trammell] being back. Taylor is as healthy as we can get her. She’s jumping well and feeling good. Obviously, the addition of our new setters. I think Ally [Van Eekeren] did a really good job in the scrimmage as well. I think we have a lot of depth right now, which will help us. I think everyone did a good job. I think everyone’s improved through preseason and has gotten better, which is the key.”
When you talk about improvements, what’s something you hope to do better as a team this season?
“I think we have to be a better serving team. I think that’s one skill that, to beat the top teams, you have to be able to serve aggressively and score points from the end line. I think our passing game is pretty good. I think Mac [Podraza] will create some opportunities for our attackers to score.”
What kind of leadership do Mac and the older players bring to the team?
“I think that they all have that experience of this conference and how competitive it is, but also what you have to do in preseason to be successful. I think Mac is a great leader. I think she knows the game well and is always trying to help players around her.”
Have you named a captain or are you going to go without one like last year?
“Actually, Allie Holland and Mac Podraza. But like I say, I don’t put a lot into the whole captain thing. I ask all 19 of them to be able to contribute to the program. Each of them will have to, at some point, bring something.”
Allie’s coming off a good season. Where have you seen her improve?
“I think Allie’s done a really good job of leading in different ways. She’s super competitive and she wants to win. She does what it takes in the weight room and in the gym to put herself in the best position. I think she had a great season last year, and it only motivated her to get better this offseason and preseason.”
What are your thoughts on the freshman class so far?
“Oh, they’re good. I mean, they’re freshmen. I think Karis [Willow] is a great athlete who can play different positions. We’ll move her around a little bit. I thought Catherine Burke did a really nice job in the middle during preseason for us. Joce [Nathan] and Kate Lally are back-row players who need to continue to work on serving and making an impact in that area for right now. I think all of them fit in really well and get along with the team. They’re fun to be around. I’m excited to see their growth throughout the season.”
How do you feel about your pin hitters?
“It’s competitive. It’s super competitive. I think Zoe [Weatherington], Cam [Hannah], Anje [Starck], Alexa [Markley], Jess [Mruzik], and we can throw Karis [Willow] in that mix, too, I think they all jump well, they hit hard, and bring different things to the table. But I think it’s what’s made preseason so competitive.”
What was your experience like in Chicago at Big Ten volleyball media days? How important are events like that?
“It was great. It was so fun. I thought Allie [Holland] and Zoe [Weatherington] did a tremendous job and really enjoyed the fun part of it and the experience of meeting the other players, the coaches, and the new [Big Ten] commissioner, [Tony Petitti]. I think the Big Ten does it right. It was a really special week for those girls.”
What are your thoughts on Washington and Oregon joining the Big Ten next year?
“It’s great for volleyball. As if it’s not already competitive, they’re going to bring a whole other level in. I think it’s exciting. It’s different. We’ll see what else happens in college sports.”
Have you had a chance to speak with Tony Petitti yet?
“I met him at the [Big Ten volleyball media days] dinner. He was very nice. We were there on Tuesday. He was on the phone. I think that was all negotiating the [deal], so he was pretty busy. But I think he’s really excited to be in this conference and bring some different things, with his experience, to the conference. I think he’s great.”
Pat Kraft has been the athletic director here at Penn State for a little while. What’s your relationship like with him?
“Pat’s great. Pat wants to win. I think Pat has done a lot of great things for these student-athletes in his short time here. The expectations haven’t changed. I think he will do what it takes to put all of our teams in the best position.”
Do you expect a big turnout of Penn State fans in Tampa this weekend?
“Oh, my gosh, yes. I mean, the amount of people who are coming, it’s great. I didn’t realize there were that many alums in that area, but yeah, it’s going to be a lot of fun. A couple former players [are coming] and tons of alums. I think we have a dinner with the [Penn State] Alumni Association. It will be great. It will be exciting to play in this venue, but for our players to experience the Penn State love is special.”
There will be four female head coaches there between you, Florida’s Mary Wise, Georgia Tech’s Michelle Collier, and USF’s Jolene Shepardson. How big is that to help grow the coaching ranks on the women’s side?
“I’m honored to be in this tournament and coaching against these other coaches. It’s great. I think it’s great for the game. I just want us to win two matches.”
It’s still early in the week, but do you have any thoughts on Florida and Georgia Tech?
“I think they’re both really strong programs. I think they have great coaches who know how to train. I know they will both be really competitive. Both teams have a couple new players and a couple returners who will make an impact. I’m just hoping we play our best match and, at least, compete.”
What’s your experience been like at Penn State? How did training camp go for everyone?
“So far, so good. It’s been good. It was a good preseason, and we’re ready to get playing some teams.”
What are you looking forward to about heading down to Tampa and starting the season off?
“I’m excited to see the competition we’re going to get. Florida and Georgia Tech aren’t underdogs, by any means, so I’m excited to get to compete a little bit. It will definitely show us where we stand, not just nationally, but I think it will show us where we stand in the [Big Ten] conference as well.”
What are some things that stand out to you about Ally Van Eekeren?
“She’s a hard worker. She puts her head down and works. She’s doing a really good job at trying to find different hitters. Our hitters all hit a different ball, which is frustrating, and her and I have been bouncing ideas off of each other, talking through, ‘What are you doing for this hitter? What are you doing for that hitter?’ Just kind of trying to create a common language between the two of us. I think she’s doing a really great job not getting frustrated with the hitters, with me, with the passers, all of that stuff. She’s a good, even-minded person, I think.”
What’s your relationship like with the hitters and some of the different options you have on offense?
“I think we’re working really well together. Like I said, the hitters all hit different balls, so it’s a definite learning curve, but we’re getting better at creating more chemistry and getting on the same page with everything and, like I said, creating that common language. I think Jess Mruzik and I are working really well together. The middles are hitting really well, all of them, so it’s going well.”
What are some things you like about Jess Mruzik as a player and a person?
“What’s not to like? She hits the crap out of the ball, so I’m glad she’s on my side of the net.”
What did you see from the defensive specialists in training camp?
“Everybody’s working really hard. I think there are a lot of spots open for the taking. They’ve all competed really well together. I like the teamwork that they put in to put up the best ball and how supportive they are of each other. They’re working really hard to get that ball high-middle for me.”
How did your brand-ambassador relationship with the Tampa Bay Sports Commission come about?
“I got an email from one of them talking about wanting to do a campaign about growing the game and talking just more so about volleyball in general and how much it’s grown so far and how much more we can continue to keep growing it. They reached out and we started working on some different ideas. We did a podcast episode with them and have kept expanding on growing the game and using our platforms to talk about volleyball, in general.”
What does it mean to you to be a role model for the next generation of girls and boys playing volleyball?
“It’s kind of a surreal thing. I can remember looking up to girls who were in the Big Ten when I was younger, and now, I am one of those girls who’s in the Big Ten. It’s definitely a surreal feeling, and not something I take lightly.”
Are there any Penn State players or volleyball players, in general, who you looked up to when you were younger?
“I think having the opportunity to play for Nicole Fawcett the last three years [at Ohio State] was pretty cool. Nicole was definitely a role model my last three years, but then, growing up, I think Micha Hancock, you can’t go wrong there; Alisha Glass, that kind of thing. Just that whole era of Penn State and when it was Penn State great, I think, is something that I looked up to back then. Now, once again, being here as a Penn Stater and hoping to bring Penn State volleyball back to that era.”
What’s it been like working with Megan Hodge Easy so far?
“Super awesome. She’s in the gym ready to work. She wants the best for us, and she’s willing to work hard to make us better.”
What did the team look like in preseason camp? How excited are you to start the season?
“I think the team looks really good. I think that we’ve added a lot of great people who are only going to add to what we had going on last year. Going into the season, I’m excited. Like I said, our talent is all there. We just have to put these pieces together and we should be good.”
What was your experience like watching from the sidelines toward the end of last season? Obviously, not ideal, but now you’re back playing with the team.
“Yeah, I’m super excited to be back. Last year, obviously, I felt like I was able to analyze the game a lot better from watching it. It’s one thing to be on the court, but it’s another to watch your teammates, see what we need to fix, and what we have to work on. This year, I feel like I have two different perspectives now, especially considering how long I was out for last season. But yeah, every day, we’re getting better. We look better. I’m just excited to be back.”
It seemed like the team spent a lot of time together this summer. How would you describe your camaraderie?
“We do a lot of team bonding. We host a lot of events at each girl’s house. We go out to eat all the time together. We hang out all the time. We’re basically family, at this point, because we never get time away from each other. We’re always by each other’s sides. The team and I work great. We just have true friendships, I’ll say.”
You’re a brand ambassador for the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. How did that come about?
“They reached out. They chose me and Mac to help them promote volleyball and grow the game. As you know, we’re starting in Tampa, and hopefully we’re planning to end in Tampa for the [NCAA] finals. It’s just a great opportunity. It’s going to give Penn State a lot of publicity and just help the sport grow. I mean, you have a lot of good girls who are in this as well, doing it with us. I’m excited to be a part of it. It’s something new and interesting, and new to NIL, but I love it.”
How is NIL going for you and the team?
“NIL is going great so far for me. I’ve been able to work with a lot of great brands so far. It’s been growing every single season. I know the other girls have been enjoying their NIL opportunities as well. I always say, too, just because one person is doing great, I feel like everyone is doing great. Because just Penn State in general, getting the publicity is helping all of us.”
It seems like Tampa has been doing a really good job of promoting this weekend’s matches. Do you expect a big Penn State turnout there?
“Yeah. I know I’ll have a big turnout. My family’s coming and a lot of other people’s families are coming, so I’m super excited to see how many people show. I think it will be a really good [two matches]. Everyone should watch.”
How would you describe the volleyball culture in Kentucky? You’re from Lexington and the team will be playing in Louisville this season.
“I’m super excited to be going back to my home state. I wish it was UK, because that’s where I’m from, but Louisville, they’re always a fun team to play. I’m excited to get back and hopefully get a win this time against them. Kentucky, I feel like volleyball has been growing ever since, especially UK has won the natty. Just going down there, I have a lot of family there. They’ll all be rooting us on, so I’m excited.”
What are your thoughts on fellow middles Allie Holland, Karis Willow, and Catherine Burke?
“Obviously, we have two freshmen middles, and then the two old middles. We’re the grannies now. But yeah, we’ve just been helping them along the way, helping them grow in their skills, giving them confidence. They’re new to college volleyball. They’re just eager and excited about everything. I feel like Allie and I are doing a good job of including them in everything, teaching them new skills. We’re all a team. Middles are their own little group, I’ll say. We keep each other in check.”
What’s your relationship like with the five new upperclassmen? What do they bring to the team?
“The transfers, obviously, two of them I know pretty well, considering I’ve been playing them forever it feels like. But the transfers have been great. They’ve only added and made the gym environment better every single day. It’s more competitive. People are working harder. I feel like that’s a big part of what they bring to the team.”
What’s it like working with Megan Hodge Easy?
“Megan’s a great person, inside and out. She says it how it is. She’s really real with everything. I appreciate her honesty and her feedback. Having someone who’s been in the game and done the things she’s done, you just listen to it all, have open ears every time she talks.”
What stands out to you about Allie Holland?
“Obviously, I love Allie. I think that last year she had a really successful season. I hope that this year the same thing happens. I think that the both of us combined are, obviously, going to bring Penn State some middles justice. Penn State’s been known for having great middles. We’re happy to just be a part of this program and keep adding to that legacy. Allie being here for four years is somebody who I definitely look to. She’s a great leader, on and off the court. I’m just excited for the season, me and her, the duo.”