DigNittany Q&A: Minnesota vs. PSU (Part 2)

Part 2

The last two or three years, I thought on paper that we had a team that could legitimately compete for a national championship. I wouldn’t say that about this team because it’s unfair. What this team can do is improve throughout the season. I expect us to hit a lot of bumpy roads along the way. The conference is tough and our schedule presents us with some great challenges. Our goal in the end will be to be the best team we can be, to get better through the season, to play hard and play together. We’ll see where we end up.

Penn State Women’s Volleyball Head Coach Russ Rose, commenting before the 2010 season on the prospects for the Penn State Women’s Volleyball team.

This is Part 2 of our Minnesota v. Penn State Q & A .  As we noted in Part 1 (in which we spoke with (R)uffda!, a longtime Minnesota fan), it’s looking more and more as if Coach Rose wasn’t just blowing smoke: Penn State already has dropped four matches this season, most recently last Friday night (a 3-2 loss at Purdue), followed on Saturday night by a 3-1 loss to Indiana (25-20, 27-25, 18-25, 26-24).

It didn’t take long for Coach Rose to voice his thoughts on how the season has been going.  In an interview with Jake Kaplan of the Daily Collegian on Monday, October 11th, Coach Rose had this to say:

The players are disappointed in how they played. They recognize that in all three of the [Big Ten] losses, they had multiple opportunities to seize the game and win the match, but they didn’t. And there lies the question. Is it the system that we’ve got the wrong players playing? Is it how they handle competition? But one thing is for sure — I’ve seen four teams celebrate like they’ve won the national championship.

On Tuesday, there was more, as Coach Rose followed up with an interview with Tony Mancuso of gopsusports:

The upside [of the season so far] is that we beat the No. 1 team in the country (Florida).  We lost to the other No. 1 team (Stanford) when we were the No. 1 team in country.  As of late, we are kind of struggling.  We are still trying to find a lineup and get a competitive identity that doesn’t seem to [be] as present on the road as it needs to be in a conference like the Big Ten.

To help us sort through the identity questions, we’ve asked our resident analyst, Masked Fan, to discuss Penn State’s upcoming match with Minnesota.

DigNittany: Penn State will be playing at home this weekend, with what should be an enthusiastic home crowd. Any thoughts on how the losses might play into the Nittany Lions’ performance on Friday?

MaskedFan: Well, it’s pretty clear that the issue with the Lions right now is mostly mental. It obviously isn’t skill or talent – in that respect, Penn State ranks at/near the top. If the seniors can take charge of this team and finally begin to lead, I think they can definitely pull out of their funk and put on an impressive showing at home this weekend. To me, this is all so strange because I’ve always thought that one of Russ Rose’s strengths as a coach was the amazing mental preparation of his players. This group of players doesn’t seem to be responding as well as I had anticipated they would.

Regardless, you can’t focus on the past. The past is done. The Lions need to look at what’s ahead. They’re still a very good team and they need to take each match one at a time and focus on the task at hand. At this point, they almost have nothing to lose.

DigNittany: Let’s focus on Minnesota for a moment. From what you’ve seen this season, what is your overall impression of this year’s Golden Gophers squad?

MaskedFan: Well, the volleyball gods certainly haven’t been kind to them at all, first with the loss of their best all-around player in Hailey Cowles, and then with the injury to First-Team All-American middle hitter, Lauren Gibbemeyer. However, with that said, I am so impressed with the Gophers right now.

I think that their two freshman, Ashley Wittman  and Tori Dixon , are playing phenomenally.  Wittman is the only hitter in the NCAA averaging over 3.00 kps and 3.00 dps, not to mention she may be the hardest hitter I’ve seen this season. She’s very impressive for a true freshman. Dixon  may be one of the most versatile front row players in the conference. Against Northwestern, she was absolutely unstoppable on the right side – very physical player.

I know that Minnesota is having issues at the setter position with not knowing exactly who to give the starting nod to (6-2 So. Mia Tabberson or 6-2 Jr. Stephanie Nucci), but from what I’ve seen, Nucci seems to be the better setter and she seems to better the ball more so than Tabberson. I think  Katharine Harms  [6-2 So. OH] is amazing. I love her play. I wish they’d let her play backrow though. . . . Tabi Love  [6-6 So. OH] and Ariana Filho [6-2 Jr. MB] are having respectable seasons and Jessica Granquist [5-8 Jr. ] is playing exceptionally well at libero. It’s very fortunate for Minnesota that they’re so deep with a talented roster.

[Editor’s Note: Subsequent to our interview with MaskedFan, here’s what Coach Rose had to say about Minnesota in his interview with Tony Mancuso of gopsusports:

At the beginning of the year, I thought Illinois and Minnesota would be the top two teams competing for the championship.  And that may still occur, but Northwestern has really come along and caught everyone’s attention.  They are similar to us in that they lost a player to injury at the beginning of the season.  Although they are very strong, that injury may have prevented them from having an elite team and team that can win the national championship.  They are a real physical team.  We will have some challenges with them.  They have Tabitha Love, who may be the best attacker in the conference – a 6-6 outside hitter from Canada.  We have always had some struggles with Filho, the middle (hitter).  We are going to have to play well if we are going to compete with these teams.]

DigNittany: In his interview with Jake Kaplan, Coach Rose noted that Penn State has played several young players (freshmen Deja McClendon, Katie Slay, Ali Longo and Maddie Martin have all seen time throughout the season, with So. Kristin Carpenter starting at setter in all but the first match), and that these players appear to be “unsure of themselves and they’re making some mistakes.”  Given that McClendon has been named Big Ten Freshman of the week two times, it’s clear Coach Rose isn’t handing out a blanket indictment of the play of his new players. 

But it’s hard to overlook the play of Minnesota’s two super freshmen, Ashley Wittman (who has picked up three Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors) and Tori Dixon (who has had to take on a bigger role sooner than expected due to the injury to Lauren Gibbemeyer). What’s your take on coach Rose’s comment, and what are some of the reasons Wittman  and Dixon  have been able to perform at such a high level?

MaskedFan: Well,  Wittman  and Dixon  are certainly not playing error-free… They’re making typical freshman mistakes also. “Super freshman” is a little much, I think.  Wittman  and Dixon  are playing very, very well but they’re still learning. It’s a process. We all know that Coach Rose is very hard on his players and that he expects a lot from his team.

With that said, of course players like McClendon, Slay, and Carpenter will make mistakes. That’s inevitable. However, it’s the ability to make those mistakes, learn, and immediately move on that separates good players from great players. Perhaps that is an issue right now… I’m not sure. It also comes down to the leadership from the seniors – they need to see experienced, talented veterans step up and lead. Young players thrive on that kind of positive interaction and not having that example can prove to be very detrimental.

DigNittany: Tabi Love  appears to be having a great season so far (5th in the Big Ten with 3.83 kills/set and 4th in points with 4.23/set. What are some of the keys to her play this season, and what part of her game do you think has improved the most?

MaskedFan: I’m not a Minnesota expert so I can’t really comment on what’s working or what isn’t working for Tabi, but I know that she’s a six-rotation player now and that she has a year of Big Ten and DI experience under her belt. Those two things can both help. Knowing that your coach has enough confidence to play you in the back row can really positively affect your mindset. She’s getting more touches on the ball and great players always try to make their next touch better than the last. She’s a very tall, physical player and is capable of doing some things that others simply can’t.

DigNittany: Penn State has it’s own outstanding freshmen. In the interest of time, we’ll focus on two: what can you tell us about the performance of Deja McClendon and Katie Slay so far this season?

Masked Fan: Well, I will say that I think Deja is playing better than [Megan] Hodge was in her freshman season, if that’s any sort of comparison… I also think that Deja is benefiting from the focus that teams are putting into stopping/slowing down [6-5 Sr. Opp] Blair Brown and [6-3 Sr. MH] Arielle Wilson. Deja plays so high above the net and hits angles that are so hard to defend. She’s a very good blocker and I, for one, am extremely impressed with her passing skills. I didn’t expect her to be this good. I actually thought she’d only be a front row player, but she’s definitely shown that she’s a legitimate six-rotation player who can affect the game from the front and back rows.

Slay is a little different… Her only job is to put up a big block every single time the opponent is attacking. She has no offensive responsibilities because attacking is the weakest part of her game at this point. With that said, I think her role on the team is much “easier” (for lack of a better word) than say Deja’s, but she’s still very good at what she does. I do know that she is working hard every day in practice to become more of an offensive threat, but right now, the girl is simply a wall. She’s a very talented blocker (committing and reading the setter/hitter) and being 6’6″ doesn’t hurt.

[Editor’s Note: Subsequent to our interview with MaskedFan, Coach Rose had this to say about Deja McClendon, in his interview with Tony Mancuso of gopsusports:

Deja has been a real pleasant surprise.  We knew coming in that she would be able to compete offensively.  And she has had some really good matches offensively.  I thought she competed really hard against Purdue.  I thought she was our best attacker against Purdue.  She had some struggles the next night at Indiana.  I am disappointed that we have to depend so much on her.  But I’m really pleased with how she has been battling through those challenges.

DigNittany: Let’s focus on defense for a minute. In five of the past eight years, a Minnesota player has been voted Big Ten Defensive Player of the year (2002 to 2004 – Paula Gentil; 2006 – Malama Peniata; and 2008 – Christine Tan. Pride compels us to add that current Penn State assistant coach Kaleena Davidson won in 2005). And current Minnesota DS/L, 5-8 Jr. Jessica Granquist has been named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. Is it something in the Land of Sky Blue Waters, or what?

Masked Fan: I think it’s just a tradition. Minnesota has a tradition of great defensive players. Coming into a program like that only makes you want to continue that tradition. The coaches do a very well of recruiting talented defensive players and training them to be just that.

DigNittany: Back to the upcoming match. What do you see as the keys for Penn State to win this Friday?

Masked Fan: Leadership, leadership, leadership. Someone has got to step up and take the reigns of this amazingly talented team. The talent is there. The skill is there. The experience is there. But, all of that adds up to nothing if you don’t have leadership from the experienced, talented veterans. It’s a mental game for PSU right now. If they can fix that, I see no problem with them sweeping Minnesota. It’s simple and difficult all at the same time.

DigNittany: The “money quote” for Coach Rose in the Daily Collegian interview may have been this one: 

[T]he kids need to decide if they’re going to get after it or they’re going to reminisce about how great it was when Megan [Hodge] and Alisha [Glass] and the others were driving the car.

Two questions – what’s your prediction for the match, and do you think the Nittany Lions will answer Coach Rose’s challenge?

Masked Fan: Penn State in three. I really hope that they can figure it out, especially since they’re at home. I have faith. We shall see. Again, if someone can step up as the leader with Dorton out, this team goes from very good to great almost instantly.

DigNittany: We love your enthusiasm!  Thanks again for your time.