Defensive specialist was one of the strengths of a Penn State women’s volleyball team that advanced to the Elite Eight before bowing out against Stanford this past December.
Russ Rose’s rotation at the position will look significantly different in 2020. For starters, he’ll need to select a new libero for the first time in four years.
Program legend and school digs leader Kendall White played her final collegiate match against the Cardinal, while fellow defensive specialists Keeton Holcomb, Emily Sciorra, and Kristin Krause also made sizable contributions in 2019.
Their steady presence at the line and in serve-receive will no doubt be missed, especially in big matches against the likes of Stanford, Wisconsin, and Nebraska.
Penn State surrendered the fewest amount of service aces to its opponents of any Big Ten program during the 2019 season, allowing an average of 0.79 aces per set.
Jenna Hampton, a rising junior from Tampa, Florida, is the overwhelming favorite to win the libero job this offseason. Prior to last year’s NCAA regionals, she reflected on what it was like to learn from White, who finished her Penn State career with 1,994 digs.
“She’s someone who is definitely super inspiring, because her love for the game is just so strong,” Hampton said. “I’m definitely going to miss her a lot. I’ve learned so much from her. She’s definitely going to be missed. She’s an amazing player and really embodies a true Penn Stater.”
Hampton scooped up 372 digs over the course of her first two seasons in University Park and is amply prepared to take over for White as a vocal leader given her reputation for playing hard and going for every ball.
“I think the common qualities of good leaders are their confidence, their commitment to the team more than themselves, their ability to make others better,” Rose said last season. “Those are some of the intangibles that separate the difference between being a captain and being a leader, because captains might be elected and leaders emerge.”
Macall Peed is the only other returning defensive specialist who saw the floor often last season, recording 29 digs in 44 sets as a true freshman. At times, she would sub in to serve for Jonni Parker when the do-it-all star needed a breather.
Peed, who hails from San Diego, California, has an excellent opportunity to carve out a large role for herself this coming season with a strong summer. Her left-handed serve provides a challenge for Penn State’s opponents.
“She’s a good server,” Rose said last October. “She’s a good defensive player. She’s tough. I think those are good traits.”
After Peed and classmate Molly Russell made their Penn State debuts early last season, Hampton discussed how the stage at Rec Hall clearly wasn’t too big for them.
“I think they weren’t nervous when they went in there,” Hampton said. “They went in there and did their job. They served the ball in, they played defense. I think they did a really good job. I don’t think they had any jitters or anything, so it was good to see that.”
Russell finished with three digs in five matches as a freshman, including a pair of appearances in road wins over Illinois and Northwestern in her home state.
The niece of former Penn State setter Bonnie Bremner, who led the Nittany Lions to their first national championship in 1999, Russell could become a much bigger part of the rotation this season.
“Back-row players are there every day,” Rose said. “They have three hours a day to get good at serving, passing, and playing defense. I think if you do that every day, you should get good at it. So, to me, it’s on the players to get good at it, and if they get good at it, then they get a chance to play.”
Sophie Walls, a rising junior who transitioned to defensive specialist this past season after playing setter for the University of Miami in 2018, will also factor into the competition. The Woodlands, Texas, native recorded a service ace in her Penn State debut against Holy Cross last season.
The Nittany Lions will welcome a trio of freshmen to campus this summer from the 2020 recruiting class, including touted Ohio defensive specialist Maddy Bilinovic. Her arrival is one of the more underrated storylines surrounding the program this offseason.
Rose, who recently signed a four-year contract extension through the 2023 season, discussed his philosophy regarding substitutions and the overall use of his defensive specialists this past fall.
“There are times when you might want to try and sneak somebody around without the other team taking advantage of it, but predominantly, I want the good servers going in for the weaker servers.”
Jonni Parker, Gabby Blossom, and Serena Gray are Penn State’s best returning servers, but Hampton could easily join them after finishing second on the team in aces as a freshman in 2018.
It will be interesting to see if Rose adds another walk-on to the roster this offseason to provide depth at defensive specialist like he did when he invited Jennifer Halterman and Bayleigh Hoffman to join the program in recent years.
Halterman was peppering with a friend in the IM Building prior to the 2017 season when Rose strolled over and struck up a conversation with the Penn State senior, eventually offering her a spot on the team.