Nia Grant, Deja McClendon Join New Athletes Unlimited Volleyball League

Penn State women’s volleyball alumnae Nia Grant and Deja McClendon are among 19 players who have already agreed to participate in the new Athletes Unlimited professional league that’s scheduled to begin in the United States in February 2021.

Additional notable names who have signed on to help found the groundbreaking league include U.S. women’s national team regulars Jordan Larson and Karsta Lowe, as well as recent Big Ten standouts like Sherridan Atkinson (Purdue), Tiffany Clark (Wisconsin), Paige Tapp (Minnesota), and Molly Lohman (Minnesota).

The first pro indoor women’s volleyball league in the U.S. since 2003 will be conducted in partnership with USA Volleyball and will feature 30 total matches from February 26-April 4 — all held at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. The host city was selected on July 30 after months of planning.

There will be four teams comprised of 10 players apiece, but the teams will change every week based on a points system. Each week, players will earn points for their individual performances and will be ranked 1-40. Points can be earned on every play, so the overall leaderboard will constantly be changing. The league’s top four point-scorers for the week will become captains and select nine other players to fill out their roster for the following week’s round of matches. The league initially wanted to have 48 total players participate, but decided to downsize to teams of 10 instead of 12.

All players who compete in the league are guaranteed to make at least $10,000, but the highest earners could take home as much as $50,000 based on how they perform. The player with the most points at the end of the season will be declared the league’s inaugural champion. Athletes Unlimited will provide the players with housing through apartments and hotels, food, and a 12-court, 68,000-square-foot practice facility at Alliance Volleyball Club in Franklin, Tennessee.

Before turning its attention to volleyball this coming February, Athletes Unlimited will first launch a softball league for 56 players from August 30-September 29 at Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont, Illinois. The company was founded by Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros.

“The best parts of fantasy are now brought to life,” Athletes Unlimited said in a press release. “In our new, radical scoring system, every player can lose or win points during every game. Athletes score points as individuals and as a team to win MVP titles and cash bonuses.”

McClendon and Grant each helped the Nittany Lions win two national championships during their Penn State careers. As a freshman in 2010, McClendon was named the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after leading the Nittany Lions to their fourth straight national title. A few years later, McClendon, then a senior, and Grant, then a junior, were crucial components of Penn State’s national championship-winning team in 2013. Grant received her second ring the following season in 2014.

McClendon, who is currently sixth on Penn State’s career kills list with 1,631, earned AVCA All-American recognition all four years she was on campus. Grant was named an All-American twice as an upperclassman, including first-team laurels as a senior. McClendon added 292 blocks and finished her Penn State career with a .277 hitting percentage, while Grant had 854 kills, 466 blocks, and 189 digs with a sterling .381 hitting percentage at the college level.

McClendon most recently played for Brazilian club Itambé/Minas during the 2019-20 season. Meanwhile, Grant suited up for Italian club Lardini Filottrano last season.

McClendon, an outside hitter from Cincinnati, Ohio, who went to high school in Louisville, Kentucky, will wear No. 18 during the Athletes Unlimited matches, while Grant, a middle blocker from Warren, Ohio, will don No. 15. According to her athlete bio, Grant has traveled to 26 different countries and counting during her life. A career in professional volleyball certainly helps one see the world.