On August 7th, Coach Rose and staff will welcome 17 players, including nine new players, for the start of pre-season practice. That’s a lot of players, which is good news, because Penn State lost 12 players from its 2017 roster. But the sheer number of newcomers also poses a challenge — where does everyone fit in? What’s the best system to run to maximize their talent?
We don’t have the answers to those questions. But our slacker staff has done considerable research (or so they claim), and has assembled pieces of information here and there. (We suspect where information was lacking, they
made things up used their creativity to “fill in the gaps.”)
This is Part I of a two-part series looking at the 2018 team, in which we focus on the front row players and setters. One thing that stands out to us is that, for better or worse, Coach Rose and his staff have a lot of options for the upcoming season. A hallmark of this year’s team — at least in the early going — may well be frequent lineup changes (or even system changes), as Coach Rose works to identify the best players and the lineup that gives Penn State the best chance to win.
Here’s a quick rundown on the front row players and setters, with our take on where they may play in 2018.
Taylor Leath – 6-3 Gr/Sr., OH/RS
Taylor Leath (a State College High School grad — welcome back Taylor!) certainly comes to Penn State with impressive credentials, having earned AVCA Second-Team All-America and ACC Player of the Year honors as a sophomore in 2016, and having followed that up in 2017 by starting all 28 matches and 106 sets for North Carolina as a six-rotation outside hitter, leading her team with 337 kills (3.17/set), ranking second with 228 digs and 20 aces and recording 57 blocks. Although observers say she may not be quite as powerful as Simone Lee (that’s a very high bar, for those of you who missed Simone over the past four seasons), Taylor probably has better all-around skills.
The Takeaway: We feel safe in saying that Taylor will be immediately helpful for the Nittany Lions as a six-rotation player, either at OH or at RS/Opp.
Nia Reed – 6-1 RS Sr., OH/RS
Is Nia Reed ready to take on a major role for Penn State in 2018? It’s a definite possibility. Nia always had potential — she was the #12 2014 PrepVolleyball Senior Ace, a 2013-14 Under Armour All-American, a Mizuno First Team All-American, and three-time New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year from 2011-13. Translating that potential into collegiate success has been the problem. Nia’s cause wasn’t helped when she suffered a serious injury her freshman year — a setback that carried over into her redshirt freshman and sophomore years.
Nia didn’t give up, and showed significant improvement in 2017 — more than doubling her playing time from 2016, from 14 matches and 20 sets played in 2016 to 25 matches and 52 sets played in 2017. For the 2017 season, she averaged 1.29 kills/set and .40 blocks/set (taking over the match against Wisconsin on October 25th with a career-best 11 kills on .421 hitting).
The Takeaway: We think 2018 will be a breakthrough season for Nia — either as an OH or at the RS/Opp position. Whether she ends up winning a starting position remains to be seen, but we believe Nia will contribute on a regular basis and be a senior leader on this very young squad.
Allyson Cathey – 6-0 Fr., OH
The #71 2018 PrepVolleyball.com Senior Ace, Allyson Cathey committed to Penn State in January of 2018 — the last 2018 Senior Ace to commit. She is a physically imposing player who, not surprisingly for an incoming freshman, still has a lot to learn to become a solid six-rotation player in college. But people who have seen her play in high school and club believe she can end up being very good.
The Takeaway: Allyson will be in the mix for playing time. How much time she sees on the court will depend on whether she continues to improve and how quickly she adjusts to the collegiate game.
Tori Gorrell – 6-2 Jr., MB/RS
Tori Gorrell quietly put together a very successful season in 2017. She played in 34 matches and 110 sets, was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week on 11/27, hit .500-plus on 18 occasions, registered five or more blocks in six matches, and averaged 1.02 blocks/set — which was her personal best and ranked eighth in the Big Ten. With the departure of All-Everything Haleigh Washington, Tori Gorrell will be asked to do even more in 2018, and by all accounts, she’s ready to take on the challenge.
The Takeaway: Although she’s played almost exclusively in the middle, and that’s where we expect her to play in 2018, it’s possible she’ll also be tried at RS/Opp.
Serena Gray – 6-3 Fr., MB and Kaitlyn Hord – 6-4 Fr., MB
Incoming freshmen Serena Gray and Kaitlyn Hord have at least three things in common: both are key parts of Penn State’s highly-touted 2018 recruiting class, both play middle blocker, and both possess tremendous athletic skill, talent and potential. Physically, however, the two players are really quite different.
Serena, the #5 2018 PrepVolleyball Senior Ace, is very physically mature — powerfully built with an imposing physical presence. She also has great athleticism, as witnessed by her 10’7″ jump touch, which is tied for third on PrepVolleyball.com’s 10 Foot Club (a “verified listing of those volleyballers who have met or eclipsed that magic mark.”)
Kaitlyn, PrepVolleyball.com’s #3-ranked Senior Ace, is more like a young colt, whose enormous athletic talent is manifest, but who hasn’t quite finished linking it all together. She is an exceptionally gifted player, but as good as she is now, she can be much better.
The Takeaway: Serena and Kaitlyn form the highest-ranked pair of middle blocker PrepVolleyball Senior Aces ever to join Penn State in a single recruiting class, and only Haleigh Washington (who was ranked the #1 Senior Ace in 2014) has been ranked higher. Although not every highly-ranked high school player ends up a star in college (see our writeups on how #3-ranked Senior Aces and #5-ranked Senior Aces fared in college), we expect both Serena and Kaitlyn to make big contributions to the Penn State team in 2018.
Jonni Parker – 6-1 Fr., RS/OH/S
Jonni earned plenty of praise and numerous awards throughout her high school career, highlighted when she was honored in 2018 by PrepVolleyball.com as the #14 2018 PrepVolleyball.com Senior Ace, was a 2017 Under Armour All American, and was ranked #5 on VolleyballMag.com’s 2018 Fab 50 list. Jonni also was named as Ohio’s Gatorade State High School Volleyball Player of the Year.
Although Coach Rose may not settle on a lineup for the first few weeks of the season, Jonni Parker’s talent and versatility will certainly play into his decision-making. Jonni can play anywhere but in the middle — that’s how versatile she is. And she has the talent to excel wherever she plays. That’s how good she is. She’s somewhat reminiscent of Megan Courtney (we’re not saying she’s the next Megan Courtney — let’s not get ahead of ourselves — only that their skills and playing style are similar), though she reportedly hits the ball harder than Megan did at the same age.
The Takeaway: Though there are no guarantees, it seems likely that Jonni Parker will be in the starting lineup at one of the pin positions. It’s even possible she’ll see time as a setter in a 6-2 (though given Coach Rose’s historic reluctance to use the 6-2 — the 2017 season being something of an outlier — we don’t think that is the most likely long-term outcome.)
Amanda Phegley – 6-4 Fr., RS/MB
Amanda Phegley, a 6-4 RS/MB from Berkeley Preparatory School, enjoyed great success during her high school career, highlighted — at least on a national stage — when she was honored in 2018 by PrepVolleyball.com as the #56 2018 PrepVolleyball.com Senior Ace, and was listed on VolleyballMag.com’s 2018 Fab 50 list.
Amanda has good size, moves well, and has a live arm. She reportedly had a very good club volleyball season, and is another player who does a number of things well. Her versatility will help her compete for playing time in 2018.
The Takeaway: Although Amanda has extensive experience as a middle blocker, we think she’ll see more time at RS/Opp, given the logjam at MB, where Tori Gorrell, Serena Gray and Kaitlyn Hord are all in the mix for playing time.
Bryanna Weiskircher – 6-0 RS Sr., Setter
Bryanna Weiskircher came to Penn State faced with the unenviable task of succeeding All-Everything Micha Hancock at setter. In 2015, as a redshirt freshman, Bryanna directed the team to a .295 hitting %, averaged 10.83 assists/set, and was first on the team with 40 aces. But, after consecutive national titles in 2013 and 2014, the team’s 28-6 record and Sweet 16 loss to Hawaii in 2015 left some fans grumbling.
In 2016, Bryanna lost her starting position to transfer Abby Detering, playing in 25 matches, starting five. In the near-upset of Nebraska in the Sweet Sixteen, however, Coach Rose switched to a modified 6-2, utilizing both Weiskircher and Detering. Bryanna posted 14 assists, five digs and three service aces as the Nittany Lions fell just short of the major upset (leading two sets to none, and up 24-22 in set 3, before falling 3-2 to the #2-seeded Cornhuskers).
For the 2017 season, Coach Rose again went to the 6-2, and Bryanna thrived. She played all 35 matches and 123 sets, led the team with 6.41 assists/set, was second on the team with 33 aces, ranked third on the team with 234 digs, and registered a career-high 18 digs against Nebraska in the NCAA Semifinal game.
There are still grumblers out there, but news flash to Penn State fans — Bryanna Weiskircher is a very good player who could have transferred to very good programs, but chose instead to honor her commitment to Coach Rose and Penn State. We are thankful that she did.
The Takeaway: We believe Bryanna will be competing with Gabby Blossom for the starting setter position in 2018. (If Coach Rose moves to the 6-2, things get more complicated). Regardless of whether she wins the starting spot, Bryanna will provide invaluable senior leadership to the very young 2018 Penn State team.
Gabby Blossom – 5-9 Fr., Setter
Gabby Blossom was the #28-ranked 2018 Senior Ace for PrepVolleyball.com and was the starting setter for Team West in the 2017 Under Armour All-America Volleyball Match, held on December 15, 2017 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. Gabby enrolled early at Penn State and participated in Spring workouts with the team. A description that comes up repeatedly about Gabby is that she plays hard all the time, with a lot of emotion and enthusiasm, and that she has a very high volleyball IQ.
The Takeaway: Gabby will be competing with Bryanna Weiskircher for the starting setter job. We wouldn’t bet against either of them.
- Six Rubik’s cubes — Kilominx, Megaminx, Master Kilominx, Gigaminx, Elite Kilominx, and Teraminx (all made by Shengshou), by By Hellbus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61354293. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
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