Kansas volleyball set to take on No. 14 Penn State in battle to advance to Sweet 16
photo by: Carter Gaskins/Special to the Journal-World
After winning its first-round matchup against Omaha on Thursday night, Kansas will play in Horejsi Family Volleyball Arena for the final time this season in a bout against Penn State Friday. A win would send the Jayhawks to their first Sweet 16 since 2021 and could have them dreaming of 2015, when they eventually upset No. 1 USC to make it to their first semifinal in school history.
But before Kansas can think about what may lie ahead, it has a tall task against a talented Penn State team. The fifth-seeded Nittany Lions come into Friday’s second-round matchup with an impressive 22-8 record, which includes a four-set win over No. 2 Wisconsin (a possible third-round opponent for Friday’s winner) and a close five-set loss against No. 1 Nebraska.
Penn State finished third in the Big Ten Conference, closely behind 26-3 Wisconsin with a 15-5 conference record. It also had two of its players, outside hitter Jess Mruzik and setter Mac Podraza, named first-team all-Big Ten with Mruzik’s selection being unanimous.
The Nittany Lions’ offense relies heavily on Mruzik, who led the team with 483 kills on the season with the second-best tally sitting at only 299. Camryn Hannah and Taylor Trammell also performed consistently on the net for Penn State, though with less volume than Mruzik contributes.
One thing that Kansas will really have to watch out for in this matchup is Penn State’s blocking, as the Nittany Lions finished fourth in Division I in blocks per set, at just under three.
One way the Jayhawks can plan to combat this defensive front at the net is by continuing to employ their standard spread offense, as they have for so much of this year.
“Penn State, it’ll be critical for us to create some offensive balance. And we’re certainly capable of doing that,” head coach Ray Bechard said at Thursday night’s postgame press conference. “And we know that we’ll have people that’ll be ready for that moment.”
In Thursday’s match, Kansas had seven players record a kill, as Reagan Cooper led the way with 11. But Cooper was the only Jayhawk to finish with a hitting percentage over .300, which cumulated in a dismal .184 hitting percentage for the team as a whole.
Kansas’ offensive inconsistencies cannot continue tonight if it hopes to continue its magical season and NCAA Tournament run.
Bechard is, as ever, confident in his team, a group he’s described as a tight-knit family that looks out for each other.
“We can go deep if we need to,” he said Thursday. “We didn’t use a ton of depth tonight, but we can create offense from a lot of different places, and defensively we’ve got great balance.”
An intangible advantage for Kansas will be the opportunity to play at home tonight, which setter Camryn Turner said erases a layer of nervousness that comes with playing in the postseason tournament.
Another advantage in the Jayhawks’ corner comes from the quickness of last night’s contest against Omaha, in which the Jayhawks played the minimum three sets in a one-hour, 41-minute flash.
“Just finding a way to win in big moments like that is really valuable, especially when you’re playing back to back, have a quick turnaround game tomorrow,” said outside hitter Caroline Bien, who is playing in her third straight NCAA Tournament. “So three sets instead of four, three sets instead of five is going to be really beneficial for us.”
The Jayhawks will have most of the day to create a solid game plan before they take on Penn State in a bound-to-be-competitive matchup tonight at 5:30 p.m. in Horejsi Family Volleyball Arena.