The Penn State women’s volleyball team learned its tournament fate Sunday night, as the Nittany Lions earned the No. 8 seed in this year’s bracket.
The Nittany Lions will host their section of the bracket this weekend, a section that includes Howard, Syracuse and Yale. This marks the 29th straight season that the Nittany Lions have hosted matches on the tournament’s first weekend.
“Being at home is something that you have earned over the course of the season with your body of work,” head coach Russ Rose said. “It’s always helpful, especially if you look at the travel problems that people might be having in the Midwest with snow. Hopefully the players rest, but we’re coming off a week where we didn’t have any classes. It’s not like we were in the gym eight hours a day. The players had time to rest up and do things. I hope the players are trying to get as much rest as they can, and being at home is always an advantage.”
Penn State opens up the tournament on Friday night against Howard, a team with which the Nittany Lions are very familiar, having played them in the first round of last year’s NCAAs as well as earlier this season in Washington, D.C.
“They’re a good, athletic, enthusiastic team,” Rose said. “We’ve played them every year for three or four years now and they always play hard. They’ve got great athleticism and they play fast. This year, we played at Howard, and it was a really energetic and enthusiastic facility, so that’s a good thing.”
“Everyone’s on a clean slate,” senior setter Bryanna Weiskircher said. “Nothing that happened before matters any more. Whether it’s Big Ten, preseason or postseason, we’re going to go about it the same way to win.”
The Nittany Lions do have an added advantage of a tough weekend last time out, with back-to-back matchups against top 10 teams in Rec Hall. They earned a split with Minnesota and Wisconsin, two teams also among the top eight seeds in the tournament.
“It’s prep for the tournament, having to play until almost midnight on Friday night and then turning around and having that same energy on Saturday,” Weiskircher said. “It was definitely a challenge, but I think at the same time it’s great prep for what we’ll have to face.”
“We play in one of the toughest conferences, so it’s like we play in the Elite Eight all year long,” junior libero Kendall White said. “We’re pretty energized coming into NCAAs, none of us are really exhausted. We do what we need to do in order to keep our bodies fresh and I think we’re really pumped and really ready to play.”
For Rose, the tournament means business as usual, and despite the fact that Penn State has been one of the top teams in the country all year, he knows to never take anything for granted.
“I don’t predict who’s going to win,” Rose said. “I’m not looking at teams next week because I have to worry about this week. I don’t have a bracket that I’m filling all the way through. I do a scouting report on our opponent, and then a preliminary against the other two teams. I watch the other match and take notes, and when one opponent is a winner, I put that on my desk.”
“I don’t think anything changes in terms of the way he approaches scouting, but he does scout twice as long, which is saying something for him, White said. “His attitude toward us is just play with as much confidence as we can and that we only have so much time here and we should use it wisely.”
For the players, the pressure is at a season-high, but the team knows that to win a championship, they must thrive in this kind of moment.
“The tournament is obviously single-elimination, and that’s pressure for some people, but if we go in with confidence, then we can beat anyone. We just have to remember that and remind the younger players of that all week long,” White said. “We’ve been in the gym every day this week and a lot more than usual. I think that you should have more energy when the stakes get higher and you should be way more excited. I love the pressure during tournament time.”
In his 40th season, and 10 years since the Nittany Lions’ perfect season and national championship in 2008, Rose is as stoic as ever, although he did reflect on the support he’s received from the Penn State community throughout the years.
“I’m looking forward, not back,” Rose said. “But it has been a group effort. I don’t think any program in any sport is built by one person. I think a university allows people to have an opportunity to be successful. The athletic department has to support you and you have to be given the resources.”
Rose and the Nittany Lions will face Howard at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30, with the Syracuse/Yale match coming at 5 p.m. The winners will play at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1.