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No. 1 ranking at stake in the next chapter of Stanford-Penn State rivalry

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The stage is set for another meeting between Stanford and Penn State. It’s the fourth matchup between the teams in the last three seasons, and unsurprisingly, the major storyline is the same. The two teams will once again battle for the No. 1 overall ranking in the nation.

Though this time, the more intriguing storyline might be of the matchup on the sidelines.

Penn State head coach Russ Ross and Stanford head coach John Dunning are not only coaching legends in collegiate volleyball but they’re also long-time friends. And this season, both have faced challenges in restructuring their lineups and altering offensive strategies after losing a 2014 National Player of the Year.

The No. 1 Nittany Lions have had to adjust after the graduation of setter Micha Hancock, who garnered the AVCA’s Player of the Year award, and the No. 2 Cardinal have had to amend their strategy after middle blocker Inky Ajanaku, who earned Volleyball Magazine’s honor, tore her ACL while playing with the U.S. National Team back in June.

Sophomore Bryanna Weiskircher came out of preseason camp with Penn State’s starting setter job but has certainly had a learning curve as she adjusts to her role in the offense. The Lions had an easy start to their season, sweeping Buffalo, Stony Brook and Villanova, but against No. 21 Colorado on Friday night, their offensive flaws were exposed.

Penn State hit just .172 with 13 total errors in the match, as some of their strongest players were stymied by the Buffaloes’ defense and perhaps by poor setting. Colorado’s 29 errors of their own helped the Lions come out with the three-set win.

Stanford, however, has been rolling in the early part of the 2015 season, aside from the first set of Friday afternoon’s 3-1 win over No. 6 Illinois. While the Cardinal’s first weekend of play was dominated by strong play from senior outside hitters Jordan Burgess and Brittany Howard, as well as freshman opposite hitter Hayley Hodson, the return of junior middle blocker Merete Lutz from a finger injury revived memories of the team’s balanced offenses from years past.

Lutz, perhaps the Cardinal’s most important player in the 2015 season, charged with maintaining the team’s strong offensive presence at middle blocker, hit .531 with a career-high 19 kills against the Illini.

Hodson, meanwhile, notched the second double-double of her young career with 13 kills and 11 digs on Friday night. She has been thrust right into the Cardinal rotation after the graduation of last season’s starting opposite Morgan Boukather, and previous experience with the U.S. National Team, for instance, has helped the Southern California native make a seamless transition into collegiate volleyball.

“A lot of that experience has taught me not to be surprised and to expect the unexpected,” Hodson said. “I wouldn’t say there was anything unexpected, but it helps you not get rattled or distracted by things that are maybe a little atypical. This weekend is my first road trip, but having played in a lot of interesting environments over the years and traveling to foreign countries helps with that and makes it all seem a lot more normal.”

The environment at Rec Hall in State College for Saturday night’s match will likely be a raucous one as the top teams in the nation meet once again. The Cardinal will look to take down the defending national champion Nittany Lions and reclaim the nation’s top ranking, just as they did exactly one year ago in Maples Pavilion. Yet Stanford needs no reminders about how dangerous Penn State can be, as the Lions have knocked the Cardinal out of each of the last two postseasons.

Hodson, despite having just started her Stanford career, left no questions about where she and the team stand entering Saturday’s match.

“I’d say we’re hungry,” she said. “Growing up watching college volleyball, it’s always been Penn State and Stanford. And I was always leaning towards the Stanford side of the battle, so I definitely have my own desire to beat Penn State even though I haven’t been a part of the team the last few years.”

First serve between No. 1 and No. 2 is set for 5 p.m. Pacific on Saturday, and the match will be televised on the Big Ten Network.

Contact Jordan Wallach at jwallach ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Jordan Wallach is a Senior Staff Writer at The Stanford Daily. He was previously the Managing Editor of Sports, a sports desk editor for two volumes and he continues to work as a beat writer for Stanford's baseball, football and women's volleyball teams. Jordan is a junior from New York City majoring in Mathematical and Computational Science. To contact him, please send him an email at jwallach 'at' stanford.edu.