Seven years ago, Randy Hood ventured on to the campus of Penn State Mont Alto as head coach of the women’s volleyball team.
His expectation was to build a culture. In order for that to succeed, and for the culture to produce wins, the current and future players would have to buy into the program.
“This is my seventh year here, and I’ve been working on building a culture from day one,” said Hood, whose team just won its second straight USCAA Division II national championship at Penn State Fayette. “It took three years to get it on its way. We have 18 on the roster; you have to have some kids buy into the culture.”
Hood also reminds his players to “respect all, fear none,” believing if they play with those two things in mind, they will play their best.
Whatever formula Hood has been using has worked wonders. The Lady Lions played in their third national title match in a row, and with the same number of players departing as last year (three), it’s safe to say that expectations remain high entering the 2024 season.
Mont Alto (26-8) defeated Kent State Tuscarawas 3-1 in the championship match. The Lady Lions lost the first set 25-27 but rallied to win out, 25-21, 25-17 and 27-25.
For now, the Penn State Mont Alto family can celebrate. They earned it.
“We won two in a row, but we took two entirely different paths,” Hood said. “Last year in the conference quarterfinals we lost a set and didn’t lose a set until the (national) championship match. This year was different. It was much more difficult. We had to come from behind to win the conference semifinals and the finals. We started out pool play at nationals being down 2-0 and came back and won three straight. The second one was a little easier.”
Mont Alto defeated rival Penn State York in the semifinals, the same team Mont Alto defeated in last season’s USCAA championship match.
Mont Alto reached the 2021 USCAA title match where it lost to Cincinnati Clermont.
“We were extremely determined in the championship match, very focused,” Hood said. “We beat Kent State in pool play. They climbed back into it and were sitting on set point 24-20. We really dug down and they made three very costly errors. We tied it at 25 and then beat them 27-25.”
A fourth-set loss would have changed the dynamic of the match.
“It shows the resolve of the team all year,” said Hood. “The girls just found another gear. They didn’t panic.”
Hood recalled similar adversity in the PSUAC championship match against York when Mont Alto was facing elimination.
“They were setting on set and match point. When we forced the fifth set it was a punch in the gut. We beat them 15-5,” Hood said.
Mont Alto won the fourth set 26-24 after winning the opening set and then losing the next two.
In the national tourney, Mont Alto beat Kent State Tuscarawas (21-25, 17-25, 25-22, 24-14, 15-13), Central Maine (25-8, 25-8, 25-23) and Penn State York (25-20, 25-13, 25-19) before defeating Kent State Tuscarawas.
Waynesboro Area Senior High School graduates Leslie Huckle (named to the All-Tournament Team) and Gracie Vaughn (who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player) had spectacular performances in the title match. Huckle, playing outside hitter, recorded a team high 20 kills. Vaughn, a 6-3 middle hitter, had 11 kills. Freshman Elizabeth Trella, one of two players whom Hood said it took to replace outgoing Kylee Gooding a year ago, also had 11 kills. Kylie Denlinger was lights out at the net, recording 46 assists and 17 digs. Brooke Denlinger had 21 digs.
“Leslie ended up being one of our captains,” said Hood. “She is a leader on and off the court. Gracie is 6-3. It’s hard for anyone to really stop her. They’re goth coachable kids and understood the game coming into college. They got so much better because they wanted to get better.”
And both are returning next season.
Vaughn led the Lady Lions in kills by an overwhelming margin. She recorded 440 kills, while Huckle was second on the team with 284 kills.
In addition to Trella, freshman Ashlyn Vandenbree was a key contributor as a defensive specialist. Third-year player Caroline Blickley also played her part in the team’s success.
The path the Lady Lions took just to get to the national tournament made for an amazing story. They trailed 2-1 to Penn State Hazleton in the conference semifinals and came back to win in five sets. Mont Alto also trailed Kent State Tuscarawas and rallied to win in five sets.
The Lady Lions then came back from a 1-0 deficit in the USCAA title match to win the next three, making for a jubilant trip back to Mont Alto from western Pennsylvania.
This year’s quest for a repeat title began once again at the Battlefield Classic at Gettysburg College. Like last year, the Lady Lions got a baptism by fire losing all four matches.
Mont Alto dropped to 0-5 with a straight-set loss to Lycoming.
But things changed. Hood, who said he made eight to 10 lineup changes during the season, found the right combinations. They helped the Lady Lions go 12-0 in the conference and a 26-3 record the rest of the way.
One of those losses was against Kent State Tuscarawas (24-26, 27-29, 25-19, 25-21, 12-15) on Sept. 9. The other two losses came against Hartford Community College and Notre Dame of Maryland on Oct. 1 and 4.
Vaughn and the Denlinger sisters earned USCAA First-Team All-American honors. Kylie Denlinger was named USCAA Player of the Year.
Below is the entire Penn State Mont Alto women’s volleyball roster with player names, positions, years in school, home towns and high schools attended:
Brooke Denlinger, libero, 2nd year, Carlisle/Carlisle
Leslie Huckle, outside hitter, 4th year, Waynesboro/Waynesboro Area
Cadance Somau, libero, 2nd year, Hagerstown, Md./North Hagerstown
Clara Geesaman, outside hitter, 4th year, Shippensburg/St. Maria Goretti
Katie Sinks, setter/defensive specialist, 3rd year, Margate, Fla./Coral Gables
Zoey McCormack, defensive specialist, 2nd year, Clear Spring, Md./Clear Spring
Andrea Lammi-McLean, defensive specialist/libero, 1st year, Fairfax, Va./Oakton
Kylie Denlinger, setter, 4th year, Carlisle/Carlisle
Abigail Wagner, middle hitter, 2nd year, New Bloomfield/West Perry
Anna Mowrer, outside hitter/right side hitter, 2nd year, Elizabethtown/Elizabethtown
Caroline Blickley, middle hitter, 3rd year, Wyomissing/Wyomissing
Gabby Baughman, defensive specialist, 4th year, Greencastle/Greencastle-Antrim
Elizabeth Trella, outside hitter, 1st year, Toms River, N.J./Toms River North
Ashlyn Vandenbree, defensive specialist, 1st year, Birdsboro/Twin Valley
Shanez Morales, outside hitter, 2nd year, Ridgefield Park, N.J./Ridgefield Park Jr.-Sr.
Gracie Vaughn, middle hitter, 3rd year, Waynesboro/Waynesboro Area
Mackenzie Ginder, right side hitter, Manheim/Manheim Central
Breeanna Smith-Geisbert, setter, 1st year, Lexington Park, Md./Great Mills