By Vicki L. Friedman | Nov 15, 2018
Special to espnW
Each week during volleyball season, we’ll recognize a player whose recent performances reinforce her place among the best in the nation. Consider it our way to check in on, or in some cases introduce, the personalities who will shape the race for espnW player of the year.
When Penn State’s Russ Rose trekked some 500 miles to recruit a libero, here’s what he had in mind.
“I wanted somebody who’s a good passer and who’s physically and mentally tough and durable,” said Rose, in his 40th season coaching the Nittany Lions. “You have to play all the time and you have to play hard. It’s a position that requires a lot of contact with the floor and many times contact with other people who are in the way.”
Rose found everything he needed with an exclamation mark in Kendall White.
In watching seventh-ranked Penn State (21-6) this season, it’s almost impossible for the eye not to rest on the unabashed junior, who is spunky, loud, fearless and, admittedly, “a little crazy” in both life and her approach to the scrappiest position on court.
“I chug a Red Bull before every match,” said the Zionsville, Indiana, native.
Then White plays as if she’s advertising the highly caffeinated energy drink, bouncing about between points and constantly roving during them in an attempt to prevent any sliver of the ball from touching the floor.
“You have to be a little bit crazy to want people to hit balls at your face,” she said. “This position is all about heart and all about drive. I like it because it says a lot about a person.”
In high school, an opponent blasted what looked to be a sure kill right between her eyes, but White dug it. “I couldn’t see for two minutes, but we got the kill so I knew I was good,” she said proudly.
White is the sort who not only doesn’t back away from challenges; she seeks them out. Roller coasters are her thing; Disney’s Tower of Terror is her favorite. Karate is therapeutic for her. She’s a fan of paintball after a recent experience. She’s even adventurous with food.
“My teammates are all about, ‘Chipotle. Chipotle. Chipotle,’ ” she said. “I want to go Mediterranean or Peruvian. I’ll try anything. And I’ll eat all-meat pizza that’s been on the stove for four days.”
White is also a communicator who isn’t afraid to prompt her younger teammates — Penn State has 10 newcomers — to hustle harder. Big matches inside of Rec Hall? Nobody’s more hype that White.
“She’s who she is and I think I’ve been a good match for her and her for me,” Rose said. “That’s not to say there’s not times when I need to put my hand on her shoulder to rope her back in, but sometimes I don’t have enough rope.”
White has played in 96 straight matches since setting foot on campus in August 2016. She has scooped up 443 digs this fall, putting her at 1,405 for her career. She’s just the third Nittany Lion to surpass 1,300 digs during her junior season.
Twice this fall White has recorded 30-plus digs in a match (31 vs. Nebraska on Nov. 2 and 32 against Illinois on Nov. 10). She is on pace to surpass Kaleena (Walters) Davidson, whose 1,957 career digs are the most in school history. White, who earned second-team All-America honors last year, is the first Penn State libero to reach that milestone since Walters was named to the first team in 2005.
Growing up, White, 5-foot-5, followed her older sister, Sloane, into volleyball, preferring the setter position first. (Sloane played for the College of Charleston. Younger sis Payton is a libero at Auburn.)
“I didn’t listen when they said short people couldn’t play because I’m a very competitive person,” she said. “I loved setter until I was 12. Then I played in a drill to see who was the most effective player on the team. We had a contest to see who could get the most digs. I beat out our libero. Ever since then, I’ve been a libero.”
She might hate to lose more than she enjoys to win. Her dad schooled her in coordination with agility ladders when she was a toddler. Participation trophies were trashed.
“That’s why I hate Little League,” she said.
I chug a Red Bull before every match.
Still, she never dreamed she’d be playing for one of volleyball’s most storied programs. White wore her first Penn State volleyball T-shirt at 10 years old. Playing for Rose seemed like a remote pipe dream even after she realized he was recruiting her.
Then she got that memorable phone call, picking up her cell inside the bathroom stall of a Mexican restaurant where her family was having dinner in Zionsville.
“Do you want to be a Nittany Lion?” Rose asked.
“I committed in .2 seconds,” White said.
She’s loved it ever since. “I never visited before I committed,” she said. “But I knew I wanted to play for Coach Rose. I want to win a national championship and a Big Ten championship and I know I’m going to do that here.”
One of those goals is already checked off, as Penn State, a final four team in 2017, won the Big Ten title last fall. White asked Rose if she could spend the night with the conference trophy. Rose granted her wish as long as she could return the hardware intact.
She buckled it into the front seat of her Hummer and roared away. It’s a statement vehicle, said her teammate Jonni Parker, that everybody recognizes on campus.
“Kendall drives a big, white Hummer,” she said. “It fits her personality. It’s big and flashy and just so out there. Everyone knows it’s her.”