Rutgers travels to State College looking for revenge from Big Ten opener
As soon as the Rutgers volleyball team fell to the No. 2 ranked team in the nation in Wisconsin, it had to turn around quickly and make the four-hour, 335 mile trip west to State College, Pennsylvania, to take on the team who knocked off the No. 1 ranked team in the country earlier this season.
The Scarlet Knights (4-14, 0-5) and Penn State (13-3, 5-0) will duke it out on the Nittany Lions' home court Saturday night at 7 p.m. in what is a rematch of last month’s contest in New Brunswick. The Sept. 21 showdown saw the Knights fall to the Nittany Lions handily in a 3-0 defeat in what was both team' Big Ten openers.
But beyond the scoreline, Rutgers held its own for the majority of the first two sets. It was only in the third set — a whopping 25-5 defeat — where the side struggled to find any sort of rhythm.
Leading the charge for the Knights was junior outside hitter Meme Fletcher, amassing seven kills. She hopes to pick up where she left off, especially after a self-proclaimed disappointing effort against Wisconsin Wednesday.
“My main goal is to shake this game off completely,” Fletcher said. “To come out and play exactly how I have been playing against teams like Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan. I think our collective mindset is just to get rid of this game, to 'x' it out of our minds and focus on what is to come.”
Five games into the conference schedule, the Nittany Lions have certainly gained the edge in the cross-state rivalry. While Rutgers has struggled to garner any success in the win column, Penn State is undefeated this year in the Big Ten, with Wednesday night’s five-set thriller over No. 1 Minnesota likely to provide boost in the national rankings.
And Rutgers’ lack of success in the early stages of Big Ten could spell trouble for the group, as it will find itself pitted against the same caliber of competition until the closing matches in late November.
Head coach CJ Werneke is aware of the danger this trend can pose for the remainder of the season.
“I told the players that the schedule does not get any easier,” Werneke said. “We have Penn State on the road, then No. 7 Purdue on the road, then No. 19 Michigan State and then follow that up with Minnesota, who is number one in the country.”
But recently, and especially within the Wisconsin match, the players have found that the mental elements of the game have hurt them the most.
Fifth-year senior middle blocker Mikaela Matthews has not minced words in describing the team’s collective mindset. After the Wisconsin match, she expressed her discontent, citing miscommunication as the side’s greatest weakness.
A match that was characterized by a number of errors at the expense of the Scarlet Knights, many of the players agreed with Matthews’ sentiment.
Despite its blinding lack of presence in the match Wednesday, communication can be worked on and garnered by Saturday’s match against Penn State, Matthews says. It is just a matter of recognizing it and devoting time and effort.
“I think we are all aware of it,” Matthews said. “After a game like that, you definitely recognize it, and now we are going to have to really focus going into practice tomorrow, practice on Friday and our game on Saturday. That is going to be something we are constantly talking about — we have to make sure we talk on every ball and stay communicated and together as a team.”
Staying communicated throughout the game makes Werneke’s job much easier, as it leaves the physical parts of play up to him.
The mental side, for the most part, can be governed from within, and with the personalities on this team and how well they have meshed so far this season, there is no reason why they cannot regain that communication on the court.
And Werneke does agree with Matthews. After a disappointing effort against Wisconsin, it is hard not to look back and see it as something to improve on. That is what Werneke hopes the team will come over the team on the road to Saturday’s match — A desire to move forward and get better.
“I would hope that this match would give them a sense of motivation,” Werneke said. “There is no room for pity parties or feeling sorry for ourselves, because if we start going down that path, the season can turn ugly fast. And that does not help anybody get any better.”
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