The Buckeyes are looking inward to tackle the obstacles that have been preventing them from hitting their stride in Big Ten games.
Coming off three straight conference losses, Ohio State (8-8, 1-3 Big Ten) will travel to New Jersey Friday to take on Rutgers (6-9, 0-4) and follow it up with a trip to Pennsylvania Saturday to take on No. 8 Penn State (10-3, 3-1).
“The reality is we need to keep fine-tuning our own engine,” head coach Geoff Carlston said. “We have to figure out as a group and tackle as a group and really embrace pressure.”
Beyond improving their own game, the Buckeyes will have the challenge of playing back-to-back nights on the road against two of their Big Ten opponents. While Rutgers sits at the bottom of Big Ten rankings, Penn State has taken the No. 5 spot.
“They’re two very different teams, and we play back to back so it’s going to be interesting because it’s the first time we’ve done that in a long time,” Carlston said. “But they’re such different teams that we’re going to have to give them their own respectful scouting reports.”
Rutgers has not found itself leading in any statistical category in the Big Ten, but Penn State is No. 3 in the Big Ten in team hitting percentage.
Sophomore middle hitters Kaitlyn Hord and Serena Gray are first and second in conference hitting percentage with .460 and .429, respectively. However, senior middle hitter Elle Sandbothe said the Buckeyes are ready for the challenge posed by high-ranked teams.
“We know we play in one of the best conferences there is so we know every game is huge and especially when you’re playing higher-ranked teams, I feel like there’s almost more of excitement in them,” Sandbothe said. “So just to be a part of the competitive environment in such high-level volleyball games, I feel like that’s what we signed up for.”
The Buckeyes will face a challenge Saturday, playing a team that beat Michigan State and has 576 team kills on the season. Sandbothe said she wants to lead her team through these matches and hopefully come out with more wins.
“I want to hold this calming presence with this ‘let’s go’ mentality,” Sandbothe said. “It’s about next-point mentality: always forward-thinking and focusing on finishing the game so when you get to the end and there’s not a lot of volleyball left in a set you’ve got to focus on the fundamentals and control what you can control.”
After the recent losses to Michigan and Michigan State, Ohio State is taking this week in practice as an opportunity to simulate gamelike examples to better prepare for when they come up in a game, Sandbothe said.
“When we receive free balls, those need to be perfectly placed on our setter, or when we have scramble plays, and there has to always be effort, those can’t be dropped,” Sandbothe said. “It’s those silly points in games that we’re letting get away from us that are really momentum changers in games.”
Carlston said it will be important for the team to capitalize on receiving the ball in serve-receive, which provides the team with a better chance at utilizing its offense.
“You try to emulate gamelike experiences as much as possible so we have a lot of competition and give them feedback right away on it, but at the end of the day you can’t put a team on the other side of the net. You can only do that on Fridays and Saturdays,” Carlston said.
Ohio State will play Rutgers at 7 p.m. Friday in Piscataway, New Jersey, and Penn State at 8 p.m. Saturday in State College, Pennsylvania.