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College Volleyball: Pierce gets opportunity during Penn State’s Final Four run

Freshman Kendall Pierce has contributed to yet another Final Four appearance for five-time NCAA national champion Penn State as a reserve defensive specialist and server. (Photo courtesy of Penn State Athletics)

Penn State is back at the Final Four in Division I college women’s volleyball — that’s no big surprise.

What is somewhat of a surprise is who is one of the players contributing to that run and it’s got a Western New York twist.

True freshman Kendall Pierce, the former Eden High School volleyball star who walked on at Penn State this year, is not only a member of the NCAA national champions from 2007-10, she’s also getting playing time in matches.

She may not be putting up big numbers just yet, but the defensive and serving specialist is making a contribution, and not just as a rooting member of the team from the sideline but out on the floor as a substitute used from the 17-player roster.

Top-seeded Penn State advanced to play fifth-seeded Oregon in the Final Four on Thursday, Dec. 13 starting 9 p.m. in Louisville. The games at 7 and 9 p.m. are to be televised on ESPN2.

The Nittany Lions will be making their 10th national semifinal appearance overall, this time with Pierce as part of the team.

“This didn’t come easy for me,” Pierce said. “The thing with our coaches here is that they prepare us by having practices that are even tougher than the matches.”

“Nothing is guaranteed even for our starters,” she added. “You have to earn your playing time in practice every day. Every day, your coaches are watching.”

Making a contribution so early at what’s become the nation’s most successful collegiate program in the sport, where it wasn’t a given that she’d even make the team, took quite a bit of work right from her arrival at Penn State in July.

Pierce arrived on the campus straight from playing at nationals for her club volleyball team. Her new teammates already at the school had been training vigorously under head coach Russ Rose since January.

It took a while to catch up to speed, but by the time Pierce was a part of three-a-day practices in camp preparing for the season, she began to become more confident.

And she began to understand that the culture at Penn State was a lot like the one she experienced at Eden. Winning is not a just a goal; it’s an expectation.

“When one of our assistant coaches (Steve Aird) introduced himself to the group, he said, ‘we’re going to win,’” said Pierce, a two-time All-Western New York First team selection, part of a three-time state championship high school team and as a senior, was named the Most Valuable Player of the state tournament.

“To say that is so bold, but that’s what is the difference in this program; we train to accomplish our goals step by step and ultimately to win it all,” she added. “All the honors the team accomplishes like a Big 10 title, getting to the Final Four are wonderful, and now our next goal is to win a national championship.”

Pierce has become a bigger part of that process as she’s seemingly gained the trust of her coaches and earned an opportunity to hit the floor more and more as the season’s gotten longer.

“Our seniors are amazing examples; we’ve got an incredible amount of leadership from our veteran players,” Pierce said. “I’m just trying to take from their example. It’s crazy to think that my freshman year has gone by so quickly.”

Penn State (33-2) advanced to the national semifinals with a 3-1 (25-19, 19-25, 26-24, 25-20) win against eighth-seeded Minnesota in the Round of 16 on the campus of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

In the team’s latest win, Pierce played in two sets and recorded a dig. For the season, she’s played in 26 sets over 35 matches with eight service aces and six digs. She’s also tried to be part of that supporting cast when not on the floor.

“The feeling you get from just putting on that uniform and wearing the Penn State logo is special,” Pierce said. “It’s amazing how many people here care about you and the team, know you and can recite your bio and come to games to support you.”

Her father, Robert, would know that feeling, having played college volleyball for Penn State, but there’s nothing a proud dad or even her uncle, Stephen Pierce, who coached her throughout high school, could have said to ready her for this experience.

“I’ve put in a lot of work with my dad, uncle and all of the my other coaches and that’s been wonderful for me, but at the same time nothing can prepare you for the time and dedication it takes you to get to this moment,” Kendall said.

To be playing at this tournament in the same year she graduated from high school (2012) is an accomplishment Pierce takes pride in and hopes the community does as well.

“I just hope that I’m representing Eden and the program well,” she said.

The Final Four winner advances to the national championship game against either Texas or Michigan on Saturday, Dec. 15. If Penn State wins, it would be playing for the program’s sixth NCAA title.

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