Jonni Parker just wanted to soak it all in.
Playing in her first-ever NCAA Tournament match on Friday, the freshman outside hitter experienced a myriad of emotions.
“Getting the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament has been an exciting experience, it’s definitely been a whirlwind so far,” Parker said. “I can’t imagine going through it with anybody else [but my teammates].”
After a rather inconsistent start to the season, Parker has really come on in the last two months.
The Casstown, Ohio, native has hit .260 or better in 10 of the last 14 matches, including posting a mark of .444 in Penn State’s opening round victory over Howard on Friday .
Parker is part of a freshman class that was hailed as the No. 1 recruiting class in the country by multiple media outlets, including PrepVolleyball .
She has been one of the most highly-touted freshman in the country this fall, posting a regular season campaign that finished with her being named as the Big Ten Freshman of the Year by the conference’s coaches and media.
Her contributions to the team have been valuable, along with those of her fellow freshman teammates.
“We’ve had nights where most of the freshmen play well, and other nights where a couple of them play well while the others take a step back,” Rose said. “While I would say that Jonni has had to carry a heavier load, and I think she’s handled that well, all of them have played a significant role in the success that we’ve had to date.”
Freshman middle blocker Kaitlyn Hord has been just as impressive as Parker throughout the year.
Hord averaged nearly seven kills per match and hit for an average percentage of .387 for the season.
She finished the year on a torrid pace and her play carried over into last weekend, in which she totaled 12 kills and hit .425 in the opening two rounds .
Her partner in the middle, Serena Gray , was one the top-rated players in the country coming out of high school.
While she has battled with an undisclosed injury of late, the freshman ended the regular season on a high note, finishing with a total of 29 kills in Penn State’s final three matches.
If Gray is available for this weekend, her presence on the court will likely be a differentiating factor for the Nittany Lions against Washington and No. 1 Stanford.
“I think what’s impressed me the most is that they were able to come in and learn fast,” senior outside hitter Nia Reed said. “Everyone talks about the youth of this team, but players like Jonni and Kaitlyn play like veterans. They’re very coachable, they listen well and we’ve also been able to learn things from them.”
The makeup of this Penn State team is one defined by youth and inexperience, a far cry from last season’s team.
With a significant upgrade in the level of competition this week, the freshmen will need to continue to play beyond their years if the Nittany Lions are to qualify for their second consecutive Final Four.
“Going back to my years on the bench, I can attest to the importance of keeping your head in the game and staying ready for your opportunity,” Reed said. “I know that the freshmen have played in a lot of big matches this year, and I fully expect them to be ready for the challenge this weekend.”