Penn State women’s volleyball head coach Russ Rose met virtually with the media for his first press conference of the 2021 spring season Tuesday afternoon.
Rose discussed a variety of topics prior to Friday’s season opener in Ann Arbor against the Michigan Wolverines, including naming junior Jenna Hampton his starting libero. Below, find the full transcript from Rose’s press conference.
Rose’s opening statement:
“I would say, on behalf of the players, I’m sure they’re excited to finally officially start the ’20 season, albeit starting in 2021, so it’s been a long preseason. I would say that’s probably how one should officially phrase the August to January timeframe. It was an on-and-off period, and I think the players are enthusiastic and excited about the opportunity to play some new opponents and see where they are. Certainly from the coaching staff standpoint, we’re also looking forward to playing some new opponents and just kind of seeing the development of some of the players and certainly just having an opportunity to play. It’s been a challenging period of time, and it’s great that these individuals even get an opportunity to play. We’re appreciative of that opportunity and hope that the players embrace it and play really hard.”
Q: How do you think your players and you handled the transition from a fall to a spring season and what did you do to keep everything together during that time?
“We went through the initial preseason in August with kind of a question mark hovering whether or not we were going to be playing in the fall, so we didn’t really know. My intent was to still work them as if we were going to be playing in the fall, so that might have been more challenging for some of the players to do that, but I thought it was a good opportunity for the young players and the new players who are transfers to get a good taste of what Penn State volleyball is about. I thought that was a good educational exposure for them. The whole sequence of events, from my standpoint, I would always be very transparent with identifying my weekly conversations that I had with the athletic department, where I would say, ‘This is the information that I received.’ And then I would be having conversations with the Big Ten conference and say, ‘Hey, this is the information that I’m [receiving] from the Big Ten conference’ and just going from there. Unfortunately, there was never a time where I could give them an answer, but there was also never a time where they didn’t know what was going on. I just think the way you handle situations like that is to just be honest. Penn State was always very clear that they wanted to have a season and they wanted to make sure that everybody was safe. There were certain things that we needed to have assurances of to try and do those things. As those things fell into place, the players had some responsibilities. I think there might have been some frustration in the players’ eyes, but I would always say, ‘Hey, this is what I know.’ We didn’t even know the schedule until eight or 10 days ago that’s starting this weekend. I would always say to them, ‘The minute I know the schedule, I’m going to tell you the schedule. It’s not a secret.’ And that’s really how it was. I would identify that, ‘Hey, we’re all on the same team here, so let’s just be comfortable with it.’ You have to be able to be resilient in tough situations, and I think it prepares them for life. If anything, I think the players should have grown through the experience.”
Q: Through all that, is mental fatigue a focus for you guys now finally getting this season started after the long wait and dealing with all the uncertainty?
“I think a number of the players probably had some real highs and lows emotionally. I’m not sure [if it was] mental fatigue as much as some of them really had some highs and lows. I think for some of them, and we discussed it, they had some club teammates or high school teammates who they played with in different parts of the country who were playing college volleyball during the fall based on the conferences that they were attending and coming to grips with, ‘Why are they playing and we’re not playing?’ All I would just identify is, ‘For the same reason that none of the Big Ten sports are playing right now’ and that would be the official position on that. I think it’s different for different people, and I think the older players have an easier opportunity understanding things — and maybe some of the younger players, it took them a little more time to come to grips with it. I think, once we start playing, hopefully that will change a little bit, and then the fatigue they’ll have will just come from how competitive the conference is and how demanding it is. Normally, you have four weeks in the regular season where we have a chance to kind of ease our way into competition and knowing where we are prior to Big Ten play. In some years, if we’ve got a veteran team coming back, we might amp up our level of play in the preseason. In some years, we might want to slow it down if we have a lot of younger kids, but in this situation, there’s all 14 Big Ten teams playing Big Ten competition for 11 consecutive weekends and everybody’s going to have to be ready to go every night — and twice a week. It’s going to be a little different physically and emotionally starting right out of the gate for some players and teams.”
Q: How do you feel about your depth at defensive specialist and have you made a decision on libero yet?
“Kendall [White] obviously played for four years at that position and was a multi-year All-American and recognized as one of the top players in the country, so we had a great player there, but I thought that Jenna [Hampton] was a great wing person for her at that spot. She transitioned really well into that spot I think. Macall [Peed] played a little bit more last year, so she’s kind of moved into the position that maybe Keeton [Holcomb] played. Maybe Maddy [Bilinovic] or Keatan [Broughton] will have to come in and pick up some spots there. I thought our back row, we had good passing last year. Kendall was good and Keeton Holcomb was very strong; Jenna was strong. We’re going to have to pick it up in that area, because we really did have some good experience in that area [last season]. There was a time before Kendall came in that Keeton had a year as the libero, so she had experience, and Jenna was a libero before she came in from club ball, so we had three players who actually had experience playing that position. I’ve been really pleased with how Jenna has handled preseason and I look forward to seeing how she handles the pressure this weekend against Michigan.”
Q: How would you say the newcomers have been adjusting to such an unusual offseason? Has it been harder for them? Has the team worked to help them out a little more?
“I hope so. For the transfers, it’s different because, as an example, the players who have played previously in college, they understood that they had played in the fall, so they didn’t get their traditional fall season. Anastasiya [Kudryashova] didn’t play last year at Rutgers because she was hurt, but Hannah [Flowers] and Keatan [Broughton] played, so they might have looked at it a little bit different. The freshmen who came in, they don’t really know the difference, because for them, this is when club volleyball is usually taking off. They would play high school volleyball, then they would immediately go into club volleyball. I think the part that they don’t really know is just how competitive the Big Ten is. If there is a positive, it would be they don’t have to experience how demanding the impact of some crowds can be on their ability to focus and concentrate, so they kind of get a hall pass this year of not going into some places and having the crowd just get on them hard and early. Even the toughest of kids, you don’t know what you don’t know until you go into some gyms and they’ve got a pretty good choreographed approach to information that they’ve gotten off the Internet on you that’s pretty entertaining.”
Q: How do you plan on handling a condensed season and what’s the most challenging aspect of that, especially with the back-to-backs against teams, and then with it leading straight into another season rather than having your usual time off?
“It’s an extended Big Ten season, because we’ve never played 11 weeks. Ten has usually been the most we’ve ever played, but the biggest challenge is that back-to-back component. It will be really interesting, because it will be similar to NCAA [tournament] action when you go to an NCAA event and you don’t know who you’re going to play. You see them play and you might have preliminary thoughts on a team by looking at their roster and now, all of a sudden, boom, you know you’re playing and you’ve got to come up with a scouting report. Now, you know you’re going to be playing the same team twice, so you’re going to try and say, ‘Hey, this is what we did that worked and this is what we didn’t have great success with.’ You’re going to try and counter the fact that this is what they did well and see if you can shore some things up. Both teams are going to be working in the same fashion with the same amount of time to get better in those areas. I think the veteran teams are certainly going to have a great advantage over the teams that are going to be breaking in younger players, because the younger players are going to have a learning curve just on the process of learning how to play, learning the nomenclature, learning how you rest and how you play on the road and how you study. There are a lot of factors that go into it. And then what are you going to do when your season ends in April and you’re starting your preseason in August? Probably part of that equation will work itself out. Traditionally, the summertime is a big part of our prep time with summer camps. The summer camps serve multiple purposes. It allows our players to train, it allows them to generate some income. They’re paid for their room and board while they’re living in State College. And more importantly, it allows us to really do recruiting. If it’s another summer as it was like last summer where there are no camps and recruiting, that would require a lot of work to see how we’re going to deal with the recruiting part and how we’re going to handle what the players are going to do. Certainly you don’t want to over-train, that’s for sure. You don’t want to have a traditional hard summer when the kids are coming off of a long season in April and expect them to kick it off again in August. I would think some players need some time off. That’s usually when teams go on foreign trips. Even though we’re due to go on a foreign trip, I wouldn’t think it would be in our best interest to jump into that right now, plus I don’t think that any schools around the country right now are getting the approval to go on foreign trips to any countries.”
Q: Coach, I’m curious how the pandemic has affected your life. What’s something that you might have been concerned about or worried about before all of this that maybe seems less significant now?
“Everything is significant. I’ve always been a big believer that everything matters. Certainly the impact of the pandemic, I’m in an older demographic, so I know people who have lost their lives from illnesses and one can attribute some of that to COVID-related situations, but certainly things that I might pass onto the players, it’s always the importance of, ‘Every day matters.’ Everything that they do matters. Yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and we started practice with me talking about January 21, 1965 when Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in Rec Hall. The picture that everybody sees of that [speech] gives a good view of the gymnasium being filled and a camera shot at the end going right toward where their locker room is. Just trying to get them to really understand the importance of what that event was then and some of the things that Dr. King was saying then and the implications then to 55 years later. When you’re talking about the pandemic or you’re talking about anything, I’ve been way more about winning and losing than I’ve been about trying to get the players who I’ve coached to understand the big picture in their lives as opposed to making sure they can make their serve.”
Q: What stands out to you most about Annie Cate Fitzpatrick and what kind of role do you anticipate her having this season?
“Annie Cate’s an undersized outside hitter — certainly in comparison to a lot of the players in our conference who might be six or seven inches taller than her — but she plays hard, she’s really enthusiastic, she’s physically strong. I’m really looking forward to seeing how she does. I’m always trying to make her better. I’m the one who recruited her and I’m the one who believes that she can do it, but I’m also trying to get her to take a little bigger look at seeing things. She’ll probably be one of the people who really gets her eyes opened when she starts playing in the Big Ten, because I think the conference itself has its way of getting your attention, especially the freshmen. She could carry a pretty big load, because she’s more of a six-rotation player than somebody who might be a back-row player who just comes in to serve and comes out. I think she’ll be able to do some things where people are going to say, ‘Wow, that’s really impressive.’ And she’ll do some things and they’ll just say, ‘Well, she’s a freshman.’ I think I’ll be doing the same thing. And I do the same things in practice every day.”
Q: Heading into the season, after experiencing so many new protocols and a new schedule and playing in the spring, would you say the team’s mindset has changed at all?
“I think they’re looking forward to playing. I think some of the change in protocol and being on the bench and having to wear masks, I just think they’re looking forward to playing. I think there will be some things that happen where they’ll be told, ‘This is what you have to do and this is what’s going to happen.’ They’ll just have to be resilient and we’ll all have to be resilient. On my desk, I have 10 different masks. You’ve got to bring masks. Everywhere you go, you’ve got to have a mask on and be ready. The players, that will be the thing. When you’re in the game, you don’t have to have a mask. When you come out of the game, you have to put on a mask. I don’t know if the trainer is going to have a mask or if they’re going to have a mask in their spandex. I’m going to have my mask with me. I’m not the keeper of the masks. The referees aren’t going to be the keepers of the masks. It’s the players who are told what they have to do. We’re going to hope that they follow the protocols and we’re going to try and adhere to the rules and be happy that they’re having an opportunity to play.”
Q: I’m curious, with Jonni Parker’s hearing disability, have you guys had to put any extra attention into that? I’m not sure the situation with how powerful her hearing aids might be and everyone’s wearing masks, which covers up people’s mouths, and how that might affect doing schooling on Zoom?
“I would say the thing that does make a difference is when she’s wearing her mask, it impacts the connection with her hearing aids when she’s not in the game, because the masks are going around the ears and it impacts the little antenna that might be coming out of her ears. That would be one of those things that maybe we have to come up with a little different mask for her when she’s not in the game, so she doesn’t have to worry about the standard mask or the standard gaiter or something like that. She identified a couple days ago, when we were talking, she was having a hard time because the mask that she had made it a little difficult on her implants. It’s really hot in the gym having a mask on. At times, I have to take the mask down to talk, because I don’t project loud enough. I’m not a yeller and a screamer, so I have to take the mask down to talk so the players can hear what I have to say.”
Q: What have you seen from Gabby Blossom and Jonni Parker as leaders and captains going into their second season in that position?
“They’re very strong, competitive women who others respond well to in that situation. Last year, we also had Kendall, who was a very, very competitive young person who had her own personality and way of doing things. I think a lot of times, people were just focused on her and her ability to do things, but I think Gabby and Jonni do a nice job of interacting well with the others. I think some of the players are more than capable of taking care of themselves and they’re not really dependent on others, and yet I think there’s always that need for younger players to have some veteran leadership from people. I think certainly a setter is a really key person to provide some of that direction. On the floor, I think Gabby and Jonni can certainly help. The communication thing is really important and I thought Kendall was really strong in that area. It’s one of the things I wish we were a little better at. If I could snap my fingers and the group would get better, I wish we were better at on-floor communication.”
Q: You mentioned recruiting and how difficult that could be if there are no camps again this summer. How did you handle recruiting last summer and are there any changes you plan on making if it’s that same kind of circumstance?
“It’s just really a challenge. I would just say that. It’s kind of forced a virtual sort of scenario where people are sending you video all the time. I think the advantage really went to people who were in locations where they had access to a large number of players in the early phases prior to March when the pandemic started. In our location, our recruiting calendar was such where we had a full calendar of when we were going to do things and where we were going. Had we known that maybe this was how this was going to play out, we would have scheduled things totally differently and gone different places, but we had a whole calendar scheduled and we never had an opportunity to go to a lot of places to see a lot of players, where we might have had a couple of people going to the same location when we first started. If we would have known, we would have separated. It’s not uncommon on a certain weekend to have four or five [club] tournaments around the country and our answer might be, ‘Well, we don’t need to see them now, we’ll be able to see them in a couple weeks.’ For people who are in a big city, you might be able to see those individuals during their high school season or you can see them a lot easier. Our location makes it a little more challenging. It may result in having to be more active in looking at players in the transfer portal or maybe looking at international players if we feel that we can enter into that world.”