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Open Mike: Title for Pierce makes trip home even sweeter

PIERCE PART OF GREATNESS — Kendall Pierce leans in with teammates (bottom row, fourth from left) as Penn State celebrates the women’s volleyball program’s sixth overall title. Photo courtesy of the Pierce family.
Kendall Pierce made it home from college just in time for the holidays.

Her semester break started a little later than most college students. When she arrived in Eden for the first time in seven months it was with an experience unrivaled by her peers.

The Penn State sophomore made it back for a second straight season to the NCAA women’s volleyball Final Four and this time, her Nittany Lions left as champions — the national power’s sixth overall.

Pierce, a role player as a defensive and serving specialist, played in three of Penn State’s four games as the second seed in the tournament defeated upstart Wisconsin on Dec. 21 in Seattle, Wash. The championship match and other tournament action were televised on ESPN2.

“When I got home, I was just excited to see everyone, in general, because it was the first time in seven months that I was home, Pierce said. “I got one hug from everyone for being missed and another hug for winning a title. It’s amazing all of the support I received and all of the people who tuned in to watch.”

The Eden High School 2012 graduate has reached rare territory as a college athlete, by being part of a Division I national championship team. She had plenty of stories to tell from her experiences over the past seven months.

“It didn’t sink in right away that we did it,” Pierce said. “It’s hard to wrap your head around it at first. It’s a dream to win a national championship, and it’s an accomplishment that’s easier said than done, but we did it.”

Pierce said emotions were flying about from players, as they celebrated, in many ways because of the way the season ended last year, with a disappointing loss in the national semifinals. A senior-led Penn State had last won a title in 2010 and was finding it difficult recapturing that same spark.

Players were determined to find a way as they went through a demanding offseason regimen, which Pierce said she feels separates this program from others.

“We had that awful feeling after last year’s Final Four,” Pierce remembered. “We started training for this season right after we lost. We train for it all year. I’m blessed to go to a school where training for a championship is what you do.”

There would be no disappointment this time around in the Final Four. Pierce said the team may have played the cleanest match of the season in a three-game sweep of No. 3 Washington.

In the other national semifinal, top-seeded Texas was knocked off by Wisconsin. A fellow Big-10 team, Penn State had beaten Wisconsin in a pair of regular season sweeps. Pierce said that helped the team’s confidence going into the final.She noted the team’s biggest scare came in the Round of 8 against another perennial power in Stanford. Penn State won a five-game match that went the distance.

Pierce doesn’t play the same sort of role for Penn State that she once did at Eden High School and for Niagara Frontier Club Volleyball. As a senior, she won a third straight state title and was named state tournament Most Valuable Player.

She’s now simply looking to help provide her team with a spark, on the court, with a key serve or dig, and while on the bench, by cheering on and encouraging her teammates.

“You go from being a big fish in a small pond to being just another fish here,” she said. “For now, I’ve found my niche by giving the team energy on and off the bench.”

Just to be in that role is a big accomplishment as Pierce came to Penn State as a walk-on, earning her spot on the team and eventually a scholarship. But Pierce said she’s got plenty more to give.

“I had to fight just to get on the court,” she said. “I’m constantly putting in hours, even on top of the time we put in for our workouts.”

And what she’s already learned over the first few seasons from so many veteran players will be invaluable over her final two seasons. She should get more of an opportunity to play with what will amount to a newer looking team next season.

“As we flew to the Final Four, I sat with a couple of the seniors on the plane to Seattle,” she said. “They all won a championship as freshmen. They talked about how as the past few seasons built up, the pressure got to them. They stressed the importance of just going after it. I’ll always take what they said with me.”

She won’t have long before next season is her main focus. The time at home and away from the court will only be short-lived.

Pierce said the team will get off the rest of the semester and then the first week back to school — for winning the title, before getting right back at work. Kendall is also excited to help welcome younger sister, Lainy, to the campus and volleyball team next season, as well.

Pierce can’t wait to start back up. She didn’t work this long and this hard and get to this point, just to sit around for too long at home.

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