Enamored by Penn State from the start, Simone Lee confident she has a senior-season solution
If you were looking for a soundtrack to accompany a Simone Lee highlight video ... how about "Rhapsody in Blue"?
That might sound too ancient for the Penn State senior outside hitter, one of the best attackers in the country. But Lee has a particular affinity for the 1920s, when George Gershwin's classic debuted.
Before she made her mark in collegiate volleyball wearing Nittany Lion blue, Lee was a Wisconsin high school kid who didn't just compete in sports. She did the academic decathlon, too. It's a competition that includes tests, performance events and an essay.
"We got specific time periods to study; my favorite was the 1920s," Lee said. "We made speeches about aspects of the decade. I thought it was really fun, and it made me want to do public speaking even more."
Now she's majoring in broadcast journalism at Penn State. While she did academic decathlon, her mother, Karen Lee, actually did the pentathlon when she was on Drake's track and field team in college. Simone's older sister, Chelsea Lee, played volleyball at Eastern Illinois, finishing her career in 2015. Simone said both of them inspired her, as did her dad, Arthur Lee, who played football and track.
When Simone knew she was serious about volleyball, she became enamored with Penn State.
"I remember going to games at Wisconsin when they played Penn State," said Lee, who's from Menomonee Falls, part of greater Milwaukee. "I was always thinking, 'I want to play like that, I want to be a person who can lead a team and get really big kills. I want to be like Megan Hodge.'
"I had offers from different places, but Penn State always stuck in my mind. I knew that players there grew up to be not just good college players, but play for the national team and play professionally."
Hodge was a four-time All-American at Penn State from 2006-09 who won a silver medal with the U.S. Olympic team in the 2012 London Games. Comparisons to Hodge or Nicole Fawcett, a Penn State star from 2005-08, are the highest of compliments for all Nittany Lions.
"Simone is as physical as our top hitters like Megan and Nic," Penn State coach Russ Rose said. "Sometimes it's genetic, and sometimes it's somebody who's worked really hard. Simone is a combination of both. I see Simone being able to play at that [next] level. But there are other parts of her game that will need to get tweaked because of how physical the game is there."
Lee understands that, and has continued to work on all aspects of her game. But, yes, she's known for her kills. The 6-foot-1 powerhouse had 503 last year, fourth-most in the Big Ten, with a per-set average of 4.16. She has 829 kills in her career, including a combined 33 last weekend in season-opening sweeps of Tennessee-Martin, Delaware and West Virginia.
This weekend, the competition ratchets up a lot as the Nittany Lions, now ranked No. 5 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll, travel to face No. 1 Stanford on Friday and Texas A&M on Saturday at the Aggies' tournament in College Station, Texas.
The Cardinal are the defending national champions; Stanford and Penn State are tied for most NCAA women's volleyball titles with seven each. And it so happens they'll meet again the following week, Sept. 9 in Champaign, Illinois, in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge.
"When we're controlling the ball, we're able to play with all the top teams," Rose said. "I don't think anybody in the country is as physical as Texas, or has as strong all-around players as the Stanford kids.
"But traditionally we play hard, and we have a good, aggressive serving philosophy. And I think Simone is an elite attacker. She is a very confident young woman and really a terrific player at the net. The rest of her game has improved as well."
These early blockbusters are the types of tough matches that Lee, and fellow seniors like Ali Frantti and Haleigh Washington, have gotten used to. Lee mostly came off the bench her freshman year of 2014, when Penn State won the national championship. She started 18 matches as a sophomore, when the Nittany Lions fell to Hawaii in the regional semifinals.
Last year, she started all 34 matches for the 24-10 Nittany Lions. She was an AVCA first-team All-American, and Penn State relied on her heavily. Including in its final match of the season, a sweet 16 showdown at Nebraska. The Nittany Lions put the top-seeded Huskers on their heels and won the first two sets, then had a chance to close out the upset in three.
Lee had a good swing on match point, but Nebraska's Amber Rolfzen got one of the biggest blocks of her career. Nebraska then climbed all the way back to win, giving Penn State its sixth five-set loss of the season.
Despite coming so close, Lee -- who had 22 kills and 12 digs that day -- isn't stuck on that potential winning point or that loss. But she did learn things from last season, and hopes the now senior-laden Nittany Lions did, too.
"We could have closed it out, and should have done that," Lee said. "It's not something to dwell on now, because it's a new season. But we talk about how we don't want something like that to happen again.
"This season is a good opportunity for us. We've all been in a place where we've won a lot, and in a place where we haven't won as much as we should. I think we know how to fix that."