Nia Grant looks to round out career with return to national championship match
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Nia Grant admitted to being a little star-struck last week.
"It was surreal," Grant, the senior middle hitter for the Penn State women's volleyball team said.
Despite being filled with confidence from four successful seasons and a 2013 national championship, what had Grant fumbling her words?
Former Nittany Lion All-American and 2012 Olympic silver medalist Christa Harmotto paid a visit to the team.
Harmotto played a major role in two national championships before she graduated and turned professional, one of a number of standouts in the deep and rich history of the Penn State program. When Harmatto graduated she set the NCAA record for single-season hitting percentage and was second in career hitting, although those marks have since been surpassed.
While she may not be breaking any NCAA records, Grant has been doing her part to make her career memorable. Her career will be celebrated, along with teammates Micha Hancock, Dominique Gonzalez and Lacey Fuller, at the team's Senior Night and regular-season finale against Nebraska at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday. The Division I NCAA Volleyball Tournament selection show will be the following day.
With an opportunity to run off six more wins in the NCAA Tournament and graduate in December with a second national title to her credit is something Grant is looking forward to doing, to join the likes of Harmotto.
The two of them got to talk, middle hitter to middle hitter, last week to thrill the Grant, a senior from Warren, Ohio. They had met before, when Grant was still in high school making a recruiting visit and there was a brief "hello," but nothing like last week's encounter.
"Christa walked in the other day and I was like, 'Oh my God!' " Grant said. "I couldn't believe it. It was somebody I've been looking up to as far as volleyball for so long, and she's standing right there giving me feedback."
The list of standout Penn State middle hitters is not limited to Harmotto, who was gone for a season before Grant enrolled in her first class. Arielle Wilson, who broke those single-season and career hitting percentage records the next season, was Grant's immediate predecessor in the middle, and Katie Slay was a teammate for three seasons, just to name a few All-Americans.
"It was a lot of pressure just to fill in the shoes," said Grant, an honorable mention All-American as a junior. "That's a big deal. Those are your idols and you're just supposed to come in and fill their shoes. It was scary."
Even today, as one who is leaving her own mark, she still considers those shoes pretty sizable.
Getting the 6-foot-2 Grant to reach her full potential wasn't always the easiest, according to coach Russ Rose, who said there were "some battles to get Nia to do some things.
"She has worked it out," Rose said, "and it will have a great deal to do with our chances for success."
After quietly working her way through the previous three seasons, with the outgoing personalities of Slay and Deja McClendon at the forefront of the team, Grant has appeared comfortable being a leader this season.
She is more aggressive in her swings, and her blocking has improved.
She leads the nation hitting .462, and is third on the team averaging 2.41 kills per set, while her 118 total blocks paces the team and her average of 1.16 blocks per set is second on the Lions behind freshman Haleigh Washington.
As a junior, Grant was averaging just 1.76 kills and 0.82 blocks per set while hitting .350.
"Potential to performance is so much the player," said Rose, pointing out Grant needed time to mature into her role. "The coaches have to identify it, but the players have to embrace it and really make it a part of what they want to accomplish."
While another NCAA title would be the perfect way to end her career, Grant also admitted to hoping she gets a conversation with someone else soon. She would love getting an invitation from women's basketball coach Coquese Washington to join the Lady Lions.
"If she wants me," Grant said. "I don't know if I can say no."
She plays the game occasionally, but the lithe Grant admits she has never tried to work in the low post against someone the size of, say, 6-foot-5 junior Candace Agee and her sturdy frame. She talks with Agee frequently, is friends with a number of team members and has threatened to Agee she was going to stop by practice.
"Athletically I think I could handle it," Grant said. "But it's a lot different from volleyball."
But Grant also knows she belongs on the volleyball court, loves the game, is not burned out and hopes to play the sport professionally as long as possible.
Saying good-bye on Saturday night will be tough, and seeing the season end in December will be even tougher.
"I'm going to miss my friends," Grant said. "They're all in the locker room. Once I leave I'm going to have to start over, but I'm excited to see what's next, to just grow up I guess."