Quotes from Head Coach Russ Rose
On playing in the NCAA Tournament
It’s always a very exciting time of the year. You anxiously await the bracket. And then you start preparing for the upcoming matches. Once you start playing, it goes very quickly. We’re excited to be at home. We’re thankful that the University put in a bid to allow us to do that — we don’t take that for granted. We look forward to starting the event on Friday evening.
On the importance of playing at home
I think it’s beneficial. I think some teams play better on the road than they do at home, because there’s less distraction on the road. In our case, last weekend [playing Wisconsin in Madison, and Minnesota in Minneapolis] was a really tough trip. You’re playing two teams that were ranked in the top 7 or 8 in the country for most of the season, in sold out gyms and getting back [to State College] at three-thirty in the morning. Those aren’t the sort of things that if you had to say how you’d script it out right before the NCAA Tournament, that you’d say “This is how I would do it.” The one good thing is we’re home now. There are some teams that are traveling today because they play on Thursday. Had we been in a situation like, that I think it would have been even more challenging. I think being at home has some benefits — everybody is familiar with things; there’s always the impact of a crowd. But it’s how you play, not who you play.
On heading into the Tournament following the successful weekend against Wisconsin and Minnesota
Those are two really good teams, with great personnel, and certainly challenging environments. Minnesota had only lost one match at home and I think Wisconsin had only lost two matches at home. So to be able to compete like that, and to bounce back — we lost the first game to Wisconsin and lost the third game against Minnesota — I thought showed some good resilience. We had different people step up in different ways. I thought Ali Frantti passed really well. Haleigh Washington continues to hit at a really high clip, and Tori [Gorrell] played really well against Minnesota. It’s a collective effort. We can’t really depend on one or two people. People can look at the stat sheet and say it’s Haleigh and Simone, but those are just two of the players that carry a heavy load. Other people carry heavy loads as well.
On whether Penn State’s 19-match winning streak has any special meaning for the team
To put it in perspective, when we had a really long winning streak years ago [109 consecutive matches won from September 21, 2007 to September 10, 2010], we never talked about it. We know now that if we lose, the season’s over. We knew when we lost to Nebraska, the season wasn’t over, but that it changed the complexion of the Big Ten race. It was the first [Big Ten] match of the year, and we laid an egg at home against a good opponent. I thought the players redeemed themselves by navigating what I think is a really tough conference. I can’t compare it with other conferences, because I’ve been here such a long time, I haven’t coached in some of the other conferences. But certainly, the Big Ten this year was as-advertised — really tough. I think the players should feel really positive about being a Big Ten Champion. This class especially, because I think this class was the first class since we joined the conference that had not won a Big Ten Championship. . . . I pointed that out to them at the beginning of the year as one of the things that I thought was missing on their resume.
On the difference in the team’s play this season compared to last season
The system’s a little different, and I think the level of maturity is different. Kendall White’s a sophomore, playing a lot better than she played as a freshman. She played as hard as a freshman as she did as a sophomore, but players learn what they need to do, along the way. Sometimes you lose and that’s the reason you get their attention, and sometimes some players are really tuned-in, trying to enhance the quality of their game. We’ve been a good passing team. The system’s a little different, of course, with Bryanna and Abby setting. It’s a collaborative effort, for sure. There’s three seasons — I’ve always felt that way. I’m responsible for the preseason schedule. Then the conference gets to pick the conference schedule. Then the NCAA Committee picks the NCAA Bracket. We navigated the first two seasons well, and now it’s time to focus on this third prong.
On the pressure faced by the players face during the season
The pressure in this program is that I expect players to get better every day. And when they’re not making progress, I’m not afraid to identify that those people should be working hard to get better, and that the older players should be showing the way. If somebody has a bad day, I’m not opposed to taking them out and letting somebody else go in there and take their spot for a little bit of time. I think there was some disappointment with how they played at the end of the year [last season.] Last year they had a chance to win a match that they didn’t, and the year before that, I didn’t think we played well against Hawaii [in the Sweet 16]. I don’t ever think it’s players not caring. I think a lot of caring is preparing and being committed to what you have to do all the time, instead of just fast-forwarding to the calendar. I think they are some students on campus who take a class and see that they don’t have to go to class, and they’re just ready to take the exams because they already took the class in high school, and they’re ready to move on. Sports, unfortunately, isn’t like that. You get judged every weekend and you are exposed out there in front of your family and peers. All of the teams care. I haven’t looked at it, but I would think all of the teams in the NCAA Tournament have won six matches in a row. If that’s the case, there’s a lot of people that can get hot and can win games. Can they win all six games and compete for the final championship? That’s to be determined. Our goal is to play it one match at a time, and not take any of the opponents for granted and not look forward and try to predict who we’re going to play. I’ve never been that way — I’m not that way in the Big Ten season. I’m not that way in the NCAA Tournament.
On whether the back-to-back matches in the pre-season helped prepare the team for the NCAA Tournament
The Stanford/Texas A&M was unique, because we played Stanford on a day when A&M had the day off, and then we played [Texas A&M] early the next day and I thought we were tired after a really tough match with Stanford — but A&M was a really good team at home. I think more [relevant] to the question would be the travel and demands of playing in the Big Ten. Not all of the sports play back-to-back days, but volleyball is one of those sports that plays back-to-back nights. When that happens, it gives you a little bit better understanding of your body and what you need to do once you get to the NCAA Tournament. Even though the final weekend has a day off in between, the Regionals don’t, the first two rounds don’t. I think there’s an advantage that the Big Ten teams have across the board, because whether they were resilient or not [during the Big Ten season], they were all exposed to the same demands. As I said at the beginning of the year, I thought there were six or seven teams in the Big Ten that could compete for the National Championship. The problem is, you could finish sixth or seventh in the conference, and be at risk of losing your job, and yet you could get hot and win the [National Championship]. That’s the balancing act that some people have to deal with, whether it’s their players, or the administration, or the fans or the media — all of those things come into play.
On the play of the team’s defensive specialists
I think Kendall [White] has played really well. I thought Emily Sciorra went in against Minnesota and made a nice effort for a ball, going into the scorer’s table. I like that sort of behavior. I wouldn’t say that’s been our strength this year. Over the course of the season, Lainy [Pierce] has served well at times. Keeton [Holcomb] is always a very dependable passer and has had some matches where she came in and served well and did some things. It’s not one of our greater strengths but . . . we have to try to get as much out of them as we can because there’s a lot of demands on some of the six-rotation players — Simone [Lee], Ali [Frantti] — where they might need a breather here and there, to refocus. So part of it is giving those guys a breather, whether it’s taking someone out and getting Nia [Reed] in the front row, because she’s fresh all the time. That is one of the balancing acts, but you don’t know until you play what you need to do, because every team is going to do what they do well. So it’s not like everybody is going to change their game plan because they’re playing school “x” or “y” — it’s not like the NFL, where you can change that quickly. This is a sport where you’re going to have to depend on what it is you do well, and you have to be resilient enough to handle the opposing team when they make a few runs, and hope that at the end of the game you’re in a good rotation and the players are playing well.
On Haleigh Washington’s strong personality
Haleigh is really an engaging human being — very bright and very interactive. I’m a big fan of most of her routines. I think some of them should probably be put on a low boil. What I’m impressed about her as a player is she has such a great feeling for the game. She has great vision. She had one hitting error against Wisconsin, and she just blasted the ball, and at the timeout she apologizes for hitting the hardest ball we hit that night — because she hit it out of bounds. She’s similar to a couple of players we’ve had in the past that are very error-conscious. She’s bright and I think she’ll be a great success in life.
How the importance of being error-conscious
[Haleigh] has led the nation in hitting for a number of years since she’s been in college. . . . Most of the middle hitters in college should be playing at a higher clip than the outside hitters. The outside hitters are more likely to have a lower hitting percentage and more kills-per-game. It’s a formula that everybody is trying. One of the things about Haleigh’s success is, to this point in time, [the opponents] know where the ball is going, and there’s still a challenge getting it. I think we pass well, and the setters can move it around, and she has the ability to avoid a big block and she has the ability to attack certain areas of the court when you give her that shot. She’s confident and bright. I’ve really enjoyed coaching her.
On the challenges of playing Howard (Penn State’s 1st Round opponent) and the potential opponents in the 2nd Round
We played Howard last year in the early season, and we played them the year before in the Tournament. I remember talking to them last year. I love the way they play — they’re a very enthusiastic team, they’re athletic, they’re quick, they’re not afraid of playing good teams and competing. They’re not just here for a photo op, they play the game hard, and I like that. I think [Howard Coach Shaun Kupferberg] has done a great job for a number of years. I haven’t seen VCU. We played Pitt last year; we’ve played them in the Spring for a number of years. Pitt won their conference — a Power 5 conference winner. People like to complain that we don’t get great competition here, but certainly I think VCU is one of the winningest teams in the tournament [30-2 for the year ] and Pittsburgh won their conference. I think the first match [between Pitt and VCU] will be a good match. I watched a little video of both of those teams. I’m not in the business of projecting or predicting who’s going to win, but I know we’re going to have to play well if we want to be playing next weekend. The players are aware of the fact that if we win this weekend we’re home next weekend. That’s a wonderful situation to have. We’ve had years where we were the top seed and we were sent across the country, and flew over the other three locations to get to a fourth location. I hope the players are appreciative of where they are, and focused. Once the first whistle starts, it’s on. You don’t get a do-over. You gotta be ready to play.