As he enters his 42nd season leading Penn State women’s volleyball, Russ Rose is running out of “firsts” for his career.
He’s brought home seven national championships, captured 17 Big Ten titles, and brought Penn State to every single NCAA Tournament dating back to the event’s inception in 1981. In short, he’s done a lot.
However, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the Nittany Lions’ impending season will be unlike any other. New health precautions, a conference-only spring schedule in the ever-competitive Big Ten, and an extended and prolonged offseason won’t make Penn State’s return to the court any easier.
Although the Nittany Lions are itching to get back to their winning ways, Rose believes the team needs to put a big-picture emphasis on health and safety amid the pandemic.
Rose keeps 10 different face masks on his desk, ready to go as he leads practices, coaches a game, or even walks around on campus. He said the team will commit itself to masking up whenever necessary to keep the season on track.
“We’re going to try to adhere to the rules and be happy that we’re having an opportunity to play,” Rose said.
Masking up isn’t easy for every Nittany Lion, though. Junior right side Jonni Parker, for example, was born with a rare condition that limits her hearing to about 40% in her left ear and 45% in her right. She’s worn hearing aids since she was 4 years old, but Rose fears a mask or gaiter may prevent the devices from being completely effective when she’s off the court.
“She identified a couple of days ago when we were talking that she was having a hard time because the mask that she had made it a little difficult on her implants,” Rose said.
As a vocal leader on the court, Parker has strived to raise awareness for others with hearing disabilities. Last year, the team hosted its first-ever “Silent Set” to support the International Week of the Deaf. The event asked fans to remain silent until Penn State scored its ninth point, coinciding with Parker’s No. 9.
Rose, 67, is in an “older demographic,” in his own words. After seeing some in his personal life fall ill with the coronavirus or even die from it, he said he’s focused on passing the importance of “everyday matters” and safety measures onto his team.
Health protocols aside, a prolonged offseason wasn’t all bad for the Nittany Lions. Rose feels the additional training time thanks to the pushed-back season helped Penn State’s eight newcomers get acclimated to life at Rec Hall while avoiding pressure from Big Ten audiences.
“If there is a positive [to delaying the season], it would be [freshmen] don’t have to experience how demanding the impact of some crowds can be on their ability to focus and concentrate,” Rose said laughing. “They kinda get a hall pass this year of not going into some places and having the crowd get on ’em hard and early. Even the toughest of kids, you don’t know what you don’t know until you go into some gyms.”
Big Ten regulations will prevent fans from attending any conference games this season. Some schools, Penn State included, will fill their stands with fan cutouts. But slabs of cardboard are far less intimidating than die-hard volleyball crowds.
On the court, Penn State’s been training for months. Rose said his staff continued its traditional summer regimen as if the Nittany Lions were playing in the fall so they’d remain in tip-top shape. As that possibility withered, he dialed some efforts down in the winter to avoid overtraining.
Still, both physical and mental fatigue is possible. A grueling 11-week schedule in college volleyball’s top conference will be a challenge, to say the least. Back-to-back matchups against the same team each week won’t make things any easier.
Rose said the Big Ten’s delayed season was particularly challenging for his student-athletes whose friends and former teammates might’ve played in the fall with Big 12 or ACC programs. Those conferences didn’t postpone their originally planned fall seasons but will still compete for an NCAA title come April.
The longtime head coach views the “outside-looking-in” position, accompanied by the offseason’s many other challenges, as an opportunity for growth.
“You have to be able to be resilient in tough situations,” Rose said. “I think it prepares them for life. If anything, I think the players should’ve grown through the experience.”
No. 9 Penn State women’s volleyball will begin its spring season with a two-match road trip to Michigan on Friday, January 22. First serve in Ann Arbor is set for 6 p.m.