They met in preseason practice in South Gym. They became friends for life


left-to-right: Samantha Johns Weakland (DS); Lisa Ferguson Hunter (DS); Vida Kernich Komer (pin hitter); Judy McDonough Giuliano (DS); Denise Wright Navoney (DS)

Tough Kids from Western Pennsylvania

We were waiting in South Gym for a Booster Club event to start — a “Chalk Talk” with Mike Krause, long-time volleyball coach and fantastic communicator — when the five women pictured above walked in.  We asked them if they had played volleyball for Russ Rose and, as it happened, they had, from 1983 through 1987 (they were in two different classes).  They spoke glowingly of their time at Penn State and their experiences with Coach Rose.

In a recent interview, Coach Rose described his early players as “tough kids from western Pennsylvania.”

Forty years ago, the young women who were choosing to become competitive athletes were kids who really wanted to play. They were hungry for the chance to be treated like their brothers were treated. They were hungry for opportunities and they were just beginning to get those opportunities, because Title IX [enacted in 1972] was just coming into play. We only had three in-state scholarships when I started at Penn State. In those earlier recruiting classes, I might have had seven or eight kids, and they were all walk-ons, mostly just tough kids from western Pennsylvania.

These were some of those kids.  Here’s a transcript of our conversation with Denise Wright Navoney:

DigNittany: When did you to Penn State?

Denise Wright Navoney: 1984, and I was a grad assistant for one year after I graduated.  We practiced in South Gym.  Our memories from here are that it helped us to become mentally tough.  We were here for many sessions in pre-season where we didn’t even touch a ball because Coach Rose wanted us to become mentally tough even before we established the fundamentals.  I personally remember that we all kind of hit that breaking point, and then you built yourself back up again.  We all went through it.  We had to come back for this weekend, because the same grit exists today as did back then — the spirit that made us persevere past the things that happen.

DigNittany: Have you found that has helped you throughout your life?

Denise Wright Navoney: Yes.  Listening to Coach Rose speak yesterday about the culture of the program and how that transcends to your life, through fortitude and grit and facing adversity.  You can count on that experience because you established it at such a great university and program — you don’t think of anything but to get through things that you thought you couldn’t.

DigNittany: What was your role on the team?

Denise Wright Navoney: I was in as a defensive specialist, so I would go in for the tall middle blockers.  Lori Barberich Rose was a senior when I was a freshman.  She graduated and then Samantha, Fergie and I came in.  Judy and Vida were a year older than us.

DigNittany:  Were you recruited?

Denise Wright Navoney: Yes.  He recruited Baldwin and Norwin in the WPIAL.  They were really the State contenders, so he would go to those schools.  We were competitors all through high school — Judy  was from Norwin [as was another classmate — Ellen Hensler, an All American setter at Penn State, who wasn’t able to come for the weekend], and Samantha and Vida and I were from Baldwin.  Fergie was from North Allegheny.  So for four years we would battle with each other.  Now we’re lifetime friends because he recruited us.  We bonded, and all these years later, these are my closest friends in life.

DigNittany: That is so cool.  How was it different back then?

Denise Wright Navoney:  You didn’t play when you were a kid — I started in 9th grade.  And I hated it.  But it wasn’t just an opportunity to play, it was to be a better person when you left.  I remember Coach Rose saying to my parents “Thankyou for trusting your daughter to me and for trusting me to be able to help her.”  Because that’s what it was about for him.

DigNittany: What sold you on Penn State?

Denise Wright Navoney: I knew in my heart it was the right place.  I didn’t want to be a big fish in a small pond.  I wanted to be a part of something bigger.

DigNittany: Thanks so much for speaking with us.  A real pleasure.


After her interview, Denise went to speak with the aforementioned Mike Krause, who knew her from her time at Penn State when they both worked at summer camps in Juniata Pennsylvania.  Mike recounted the following story:

Mike Krause: It was before a morning session, and Dave Evans — who had been Denise’s high school coach — saw Denise come into the gym.  Denise looked like she had just rolled out of bed.  Well, it was camp, everyone was exhausted.  Denise’s hair was all straggly, and Coach Evans said “Denise you look [terrible].  And Denise replied — and I’ve never forgotten this — “Coach, I’m not here to look good.  I’m here to play volleyball.”


  • Rec Hall, by Nathaniel C. Sheetz, CC BY-SA 3.0,  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.
  • Photo of the five former players by staff.