After not yielding a single set in its first three games, No. 6 Penn State will face Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum for the first game of the Cyclone Invitational on Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Penn State (3-0 overall) presents a powerhouse offensive attack that the Cyclones (2-1 overall) will have troubles stopping, but after a promising offensive outing against South Dakota, Iowa State may have the opportunity to challenge the Nittany Lions for a few sets.
“Christy [Johnson-Lynch] mentioned to us after the match today that they tend to run a lot of combination plays and we saw that actually more than we ever have with South Dakota, so that was a good kind of set up for us to get used to that,” said Piper Mauck.
Despite a sort of tune-up game against South Dakota to prepare for Penn State, the Nittany Lions are a whole different beast.
Penn State has four players with more than 40 attack attempts and it is the two middle blockers, Serena Gray and Kaitlyn Hord, who lead the team in kills and were both AVCA Honorable Mention All-Americans as freshmen last season.
Gray has 34 kills to lead the team and a blistering .702 hitting percentage while Hord has 29 kills and another high hitting percentage of .609.
The Nittany Lions' overall hitting percentage is .478 and for comparison, Iowa State checks in with a season hitting percentage of .238.
Also involved on Penn State’s efficient attack are hitters Allyson Cathey, who has 24 kills and a .341 hitting percentage, and Jonni Parker, who has 23 kills and a .489 hitting percentage. Parker was a third team AVCA All-American and led Penn State in kills last season.
Parker’s drop in kills this season is the result of a change of system on the attack for Penn State.
“It’s cool watching them they’re just different from teams we’ve played lately,"
Johnson-Lynch said. "This year their offense is a little different.”
This season, Penn State has the middle blockers, Gray and Hord, as the main hitters in the offense and the outside hitters function as second or third options on the attack to keep an opponent's block on their toes -- for Iowa State the opposite is true with the outside hitters functioning as go-to options.
Penn State will repeatedly feed the ball to Gray or Hord in the middle of the court on the same play, but the play allows for the setter to hit a variety of other passes. For instance, the middle blocker will slide — a maneuver where the hitter loops behind the setter to hit the ball on the outside of the net.
If the block is getting lazy in the middle of the court, Penn State’s dynamic athletes at middle blocker will quickly get behind the setter for an easy cross court kill.
Another variation of this play involves a slide by the middle blocker and a quick pass to the left outside hitter. If the block follows Gray or Hord on the slide, players like Cathey will have a fairly open court to hit against.
Of the Penn State’s four major hitters, only one has yet to be mentioned — Parker. On this play Parker can provide another dangerous hitting opportunity, but this time from the back row.
Parker will crash towards the net from the back row on the attack and provides Penn State’s setter another option to pass to for a kill.
Like South Dakota, Penn State’s offense provides extensive options and quirks to put pressure on an opponent's defense.
“I think it’s something that [South Dakota] would do like the same exact play over and over again and then they would throw in like a switch up play so we had to be on our toes and be ready for that,” said Josie Herbst.
With such a unique offense with so many options, Johnson-Lynch said the team will need to spend even more time preparing.
While Iowa State will surely have fits with Penn State’s attack, the Nittany Lions have far from an elite block and average 1.8 blocks per set — an area Iowa State can exploit after a strong offensive showing against South Dakota.
Iowa State hit .305 as a team with huge contributions from Annie Hatch, Herbst, Eleanor Holthaus and Candelaria Herrera.
All players have been working on developing and improving on the attack with Herbst being more consistent hitting different shots, Holthaus working on attacking from the back row, Herrera working on her slide and Hatch working on varying up her shot selection.
“I think the hitters did a great job of finding the open spots on the court and finding their weak spots — basically, I think we had a lot of smart tips and roll shots that really helped us save the game,” Mauck said.
Hatch, a freshman, has seen the most game-to-game improvement of Iowa State's hitters statistically. Though only averaging a .164 hitting percentage so far this season, Hatch, who has the most attack attempts of any Cyclone, has been able to cut down her attack errors from nine to six and then down to three against South Dakota.
Despite not possessing a strong block so far this season, Penn State will be scrappy on defense and aside from their offensive pressure, the Nittany Lions have strong servers, who will put pressure on Iowa State and force Mauck away from the net for out-of-system sets.
“They do what they do every year — serve tough, play great defense, be pretty physical and they’re always very aggressive,” Johnson-Lynch said. “You don’t see them tipping a lot of balls, they come right at you with everything they got and that’s pretty important to that program.”
From all aspects of the game, Penn State gives Iowa State all they can handle — and perhaps even more.