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Penn State faces road test in California tourney

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — The Penn State women’s volleyball team heads into a high-profile, early-season tournament with a four-match win streak, but a bit of uncertainty as well.

The lineup for the Nike Big Four Classic in Stanford, Calif., reads like a potential preview for the NCAA tournament semifinals. The No. 2 Nittany Lions face No. 6 Stanford on Friday, with two other traditional powerhouses — No. 4 Texas and No. 9 Florida — in the other match.

The winners square off the following night, with a match between the losers completing the doubleheader.

“The smarter man would have not scheduled an event like this,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said. “But, I just think we won the last four national championships, it would be a soft position for me to be dodging people.”

Penn State went 1-1 in last year’s inaugural tournament. The loss was to Stanford, which snapped the Nittany Lions’ record 109-match win streak.

The Nittany Lions head into this weekend having won four straight after losing its season opener to then-unranked Oregon.

But this weekend presents a new set of challenges. Not only will Penn State be playing in a hostile road environment, but they also haven’t settled on a permanent starting lineup.

Rose is still toying between several combinations. His biggest decision involves who will be the team’s starting setter: freshman Micha Hancock or junior Kristin Carpenter.

“I think anybody that’s worked with young people knows that what may be good one day, might not be so good the next day,” Rose said. “There is no set lineup. That’s what you hope to figure out in preseason, especially in a tournament like this.”

Carpenter was the starting setter last season, when Penn State captured its unprecedented fourth consecutive title. However, defensive specialist — and not setter — is the 5-foot-6 Carpenter’s natural position.

Carpenter started as setter in the season-opening loss to the Ducks. But when Penn State struggled, Rose switched to Hancock to quarterback the offense. She has been the starting setter the last four matches, while Carpenter was the starting libero in each of those contests.

Still, no decision is permanent. Rose said both players took turns setting in practice this week. Hancock said that’s a good thing because it reassures both players that playing time must be earned.

“Coach has a plan,” Carpenter said. “Even if he doesn’t, he knows what he’s doing. So, we trust him that he knows what’s best for us and he knows what it will take to win.”

Carpenter said for now, she prefers playing libero and would like to see Hancock develop as a setter.

“Coach demands a lot out of that position because the setter is the coach on the court,” Carpenter said. “It’s a lot of pressure. And we’re tough on her because we know she can be better and we know she has potential to be really good.”

Rose isn’t convinced just yet.

“I’m not necessarily sure Micha’s ready to play Stanford at Stanford,” he said. “But I’m not sure any of my players are ready to play Stanford at Stanford.”

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