After being picked to finish eighth in the Big Ten, the Ohio State women’s volleyball team (19-3, 8-2) has proven many doubters wrong thus far, but it has an opportunity to make a huge statement against the team that has captured six of the last eight national championships.
The No. 11 Buckeyes are set to play No. 3 Penn State (19-2, 8-2) twice this week as they look for their first victory over the Nittany Lions in 16 games, a drought that dates back to 2006.
OSU will host the first game on Wednesday at 5 p.m. in St. John Arena before the series shifts to State College, Pennsylvania, on Friday at 7 p.m.
Although the Buckeyes haven’t had much success against their Pennsylvania rivals — winning just 14 of 58 all-time matchups — junior libero Valeria León said OSU can’t worry about the prestige of the team on the other side of the net.
“If we have a good gameplan and we bring our ‘A’ game, it’s going to be a good battle,” León said. “It can go either way.”
OSU’s success this year against other top teams gives the team confidence heading into two tough matches, senior setter Emily Ruetter said.
“We’re definitely feeling good about the Penn State games,” the senior said. “They’re going to be super tough, as every game in the Big Ten is, but I think it’s going to be a really good test for us.”
Against one of the top teams in the nation, “minimizing unforced errors” will be critical, said coach Geoff Carlston, who is looking for his first win over Penn State since taking over OSU’s women’s volleyball program in 2008.
“You can’t make a lot of dumb mistakes and just give points away,” Carlston said.
The Nittany Lions are one of the most prolific defensive teams in the nation, ranking third in the nation with 3.22 blocks per set and holding teams to a .140 attack percentage — the fifth best rate in the country.
“Swing high, don’t try to hit the ball straight down; it doesn’t typically work out well when you do that,” Carlston said about combatting the blocking prowess of Penn State.
Penn State had four players named to the preseason all-Big Ten squad: sophomore outside hitter Ali Frantti — who was last season’s American Volleyball Coaches Association Freshman of the Year — redshirt sophomore outside hitter and middle blocker Aiyana Whitney, sophomore middle blocker Haleigh Washington and senior outside hitter Megan Courtney.
Washington leads the Big Ten and ranks second in the country with an eye-popping .459 attack percentage, while Courtney is second in the conference with 1.51 blocks per set.
Courtney has missed her team’s last four games with a foot injury, but Carlston said he expects her to return on Wednesday.
“They’re a different team (with her), and she’s definitely the leader of their team,” Carlston said.
Hughes remains sidelined with elbow injury
Since hurting her left elbow in last week’s game against Michigan State, setter Taylor Hughes has yet to return to action and her timetable to get back on the court is unknown.
“The elbow’s pretty unstable, but it’s a lot better than it looked maybe four or five days ago,” Carlston said.
Hughes has been doing side work in practices, and Carlston hasn’t ruled out a return from the freshman this season but said she’ll have to play through some pain to do so.
In the meantime, Ruetter is being called upon to take over the setting duties. She played well in OSU’s last game against Michigan, racking up 54 assists, a season-high for any Buckeye setter.
“All of us are just really worried about Taylor and hoping she gets back to being her normal self and being back to full strength,” Ruetter said. “Her and I have always seen ourselves as a team so we’re just hoping she comes back full strength as soon as she can.”
A big crowd is expected in St. John Arena for Wednesday’s match, something León thinks will give the Buckeyes an extra lift.
“The crowd is usually the seventh player,” she said. “If we can get really good plays and get the crowd going, it’s going to be on our side all the time.”
OSU is 8-1 on its home floor this season, with its only loss coming to then-No. 21 Minnesota in the conference opener.
OSU is scheduled to head to the East Coast next weekend for games against Maryland on Nov. 6 and Rutgers on Nov. 7.