By Anna Kayser
Iowa will have to play its best volleyball of the season so far to compete with No. 1 Penn State at 8 p.m. today in Carver-Hawkeye.
Penn State is 26-1 on the season, 13-1 in the Big Ten. Its only loss came at the hands of Nebraska in September.
The Nittany Lions are ranked No. 1 in the nation with a .354 attack percentage. Outside hitter Haleigh Washington is leading the team with a season attack percentage of .520.
Iowa’s improving blocking will be important in shutting down the best offensive team in the country.
“Our blocking’s gotten a lot better in the past few games, and the stats really prove that,” senior middle blocker Kelsey O’Neill said. “[Penn State] is a really big team, so even getting really good touches on them and any block that we can get will really help slow it down and help our defense pick up more balls.”
The last time the two teams met, on Sept. 23, Penn State took the match, 3-1. That was the first time since 2012 that the Hawkeyes had taken a set from the Nittany Lions.
“Now I think we have so much more experience, we’ve played a lot more big matches, so we’re more used to that pressure and the things that come along with those big matches,” senior libero Annika Olsen said. “I think it’s going to be a lot better match this time.”
Taking a set off the top-ranked team that early in the season brings a lot of confidence going into the second meeting.
This time, playing in Carver-Hawkeye may give Iowa the advantage.
“Taking that one set just shows us that we can beat them if we do all the right things on our side of the net,” Olsen said. “I think playing in Carver, having the home-court advantage, playing on our own court will be huge. Just having that extra experience will be good, too.”
Throughout the season, Iowa has struggled finishing out the big matches that are crucial for meeting its season goal of making it to the NCAA Tournament.
Most recently, the Hawkeyes fell to No. 22 Purdue in five tight sets on Nov. 5.
“So obviously, we’ve been struggling with [closing out matches],” O’Neill said. “In practice, we’ve done a lot of drills where there’s that end of the game kind of mentality and just putting ourselves in that position more often is getting us more comfortable for an actual real-game setting.”
Getting in those close situations comes down to how hard the team has worked leading up to the match and how much intensity is held throughout.
“We’re putting ourselves in situations where it’s coming down to the last 5 or 6 points, and you have to have worked really hard that whole week to have put yourself in that situation,” associate head coach Vicki Brown said. “It’s about fine-tuning every part of that game, and a lot of it just comes down to being able to sustain our focus in longer rallies.”
Holding the intensity is going to be big against a team such as Penn State, which takes advantage of even the smallest drop in competition.
“I think consistency is one huge thing,” Olsen said. “We don’t want to be super-high and super-low, we kind of want to stay steady and keep that intensity high the whole game. We need to learn how to bounce back better and just stay consistent throughout the entire match, so that’ll be big.”