McClendon out to finish with flourish
Penn State's Deja McClendon has a couple of ways she loves to express her abundant creativity. One is painting things, like portraits. The other is pounding things, like volleyballs.
"I think they're kind of similar, though," McClendon insists. "Playing a sport is an art, honestly. You have to be creative.
"Volleyball is a stress reliever. I can just let out everything and be competitive and be loud. Painting is very calming and relaxing. I'm not especially good. I just like to do it."
She is especially good at volleyball, though. Great, in fact. She is a major reason No. 2 seed Penn State is back in the national semifinals, where the Nittany Lions will meet No. 3 seed Washington at Seattle's KeyArena on Thursday.
McClendon, a 6-foot-1 senior outside hitter, was the most outstanding player in the Lexington, Ky., regional. There, she helped the Nittany Lions (31-2) beat Michigan State and Stanford, the latter in a five-set tug-of-war. Those matches were near her home -- Louisville -- and McClendon had a big contingent of friends and family there.
It's a whole lot further to Seattle. McClendon couldn't be more thrilled to make that trip with her teammates. Last year, the national semifinals and final were in Louisville, and she had a chance to win a championship in her hometown. But Penn State lost to Oregon in the semis.
"That was one of my worst losses, ever," McClendon said. "I remember when it was over, I just felt defeated, and I think it took all of us a long time to recover from it. I don't even know if it was so much me losing at home; I just had such high expectations for us last year, and it didn't end right."
In her first season at Penn State, things ended perfectly. That was 2010, when-- despite being on a senior-dominated team-- McClendon was voted most outstanding player of the NCAA championship. She also was named national freshman of the year by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.
Looking back, though, McClendon would not give herself a high grade for her overall volleyball ability then. It was only three years ago, but she feels like -- in regard to her improvement in the sport -- it was long, long ago.
But that's what college is for: growing up and expanding your talents. McClendon actually seemed pretty grown up as a freshman, in terms of being outgoing, well-spoken and an effervescent personality.
What she didn't have to be then, though, was a leader. There were plenty of seniors around to do that. Now, she's one of those seniors.
McClendon and her Nittany Lion teammates won the Big Ten regular-season championship this season. In non-conference play, they lost Sept. 7 to Texas, which is the No. 1 seed and faces Wisconsin in Thursday's first semifinal. Penn State lost only one other match -- to Michigan State on Sept. 27 -- and then avenged that in the NCAA round of 16.
"This year, it's been mostly about leadership and teaching younger girls what it takes to be a Penn State player," McClendon said. "It's come full circle for me. Not only in terms of volleyball, but knowing what kind of positive impact I can make.
"It's about being a smiling face and a positive person on a team, and not just about making digs or not making errors."
Speaking of digs, though, McClendon was not very adept at that when she came to Penn State. She was a big hitter, for sure. But the defensive part of the sport just wasn't her thing … yet.
That has changed dramatically. Not only has McClendon led Penn State in kills (335) this season, she also was second on the team in digs (326).
"Defense to me is about just going for it, using your gut instincts," she said. "You can watch as much film as you want. Ultimately, when you get on the court, you have to have a feel for where the ball is going, and be willing to sacrifice your body.
"It took me a lot to learn that mentality. When I came here, I didn't really know how to roll, how to go to the ground. That's an embarrassing thing to admit, but I didn't have great floor skills."
She then laughed, remembering her freshman self.
"I was a scrawny, bony girl and it hurt to hit the ground. Later on, I gained that mentality of going all-out. I stopped worrying about it. Now, it's probably one of my favorite parts of the game. To get a big 'up' -- to save a ball -- it's almost better than a kill."
Not a lot of people win national championships, and McClendon is grateful for the one she has. But she'd really be happy to bookend it with another this week.
"We've won it before, and we've also come so close," she said. "We know what it takes. There's not a moment you can let up if you want to win your last match."