Penner leaves mark on UNCG volleyball

 Aurora’s volleyball program has a storied tradition, producing an entire line of outstanding players throughout the years including some really great setters, but in 2014 Allison Penner put up some pretty impressive numbers that will be difficult for anyone to surpass.
Her 993 season set assist record that year, in addition to her 2,774 career assist mark plus her single match record of 59 assists as a sophomore are now three lofty numbers younger players can see are possible, but only with a lot of hard work, a lot of sweat, and oh yes, an exuberant amount of talent.
I recently caught up with Allison, the daughter of Kirk and Jennifer Penner, when she was back home for Christmas break following her senior season at UNC-Greensboro. Just like in high school, she ended up being a four-year starter for the Spartans and head coach Corey Carlin, not missing a beat in being named the Southern Conference Freshman of the Year after her 1,079 assists and 264 digs back in 2015. Also, that season she put up a school record 64 assists against Chattanooga.
She said the move to Greensboro from high school was one she remembers handling pretty well, even though it was a long way from home
“The transition was more technical,” she said about the volleyball process. “We looked more at every aspect of the game. High school was more broad. We looked at every single detail of the game and focused on perfecting it. It worked out for me because I’m a perfectionist, but it’s an adjustment for a lot of other people.”
Preparing for opponents was more time consuming, too.
“So the scout for the game tomorrow would be the night before,” she said about preparing for a typical match. “We looked at every player and looked at all their different rotations, then what we were going to do and what they were going to do.”
She said she also watched opposing defenses to spot openings where her hitters could attack, and that even her backcourt players looked out for her. “They are the shot makers and will tell you what to do,” she said. “Even before the game they’ll talk about tendencies.”
As a sophomore, Allison was named First Team All-Southern Conference and was also awarded a Commissioner’s Medal for a 4.0 grade point average. She made 26 starts in 30 matches and earned 1,172 assists. Her 10.95 assists per set ranks fifth best in school history and put her 30th in the entire country in assists per set.
As a junior, she again was named First Team All-Southern Conference and started all 31 matches, leading the Spartans with 1,245 assists, sixth best in school history. Her 10.38 assists per set ranked ninth-best in school history.
As a senior, Allison had 804 assists, 262 digs, 68 kills and 21 blocks. She was also named to the CoSIDA (College Sports Information Directors of America) District 3 Academic Team Division 1.
All of those four seasons add up to a mind-boggling 4,302 assists (2nd in school history), 1,115 digs (134 shy of top 10 in school history), 176 blocks along with 71 service aces in a total of 426 sets played (22 short of top 10 in school history). Lots of big numbers, even for someone who is majoring in accounting.
She did admit that the culture change from Nebraska to North Carolina was pretty dramatic.
“I liked it. It was hard to get used to. It’s very southern, but I liked it and that’s what I wanted to see.”
Allison recalled that she wasn’t expecting to start all four years in Greensboro because she walked into a situation with an established junior setter. She also said her coach instructed her to speak up, that she was going to have to be more vocal in order to have a lead role right out of high school.
“I’m a pretty level-headed person. I don’t talk a whole lot,” Allison pointed out. “It was hard for me as a freshman to talk to upperclassmen and tell them what to do. A lot of times I’d ask them what they wanted to do, if something wasn’t working.
“But it was easy to make new friends,” she continued. “A lot of my friends were my teammates. I loved my teammates and I’m thankful they were my best friends.”
As for the countless hours she put in to practices, weight lifting and then sometimes film study, the Aurora alum told me the fall seasons were obviously more intense and time consuming. In the spring it’s about half as many hours with weekends in April devoted to playing tournaments, for example at North Carolina, where Greensboro would face the Tar Heels along with North Carolina State.
Allison said home matches averaged around 500 fans, which was actually the highest ranked attendance in the Southern Conference, and that athletic facilities improved during her time there, and continue to improve.
“I enjoyed being in North Carolina, just being somewhere new and meeting new people and the college volleyball experience was really fun,” Allison said about her journey. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play Division 1 volleyball, and I got to go to different places and see a lot of amazing athletes.
“This fall Kansas (Jayhawks) was hard. They are so just athletic. They were lights out. We were supposed to host Kansas, High Point and Elon, but that obviously didn’t work out (with Hurricane Michael hitting the East Coast). We all wanted to play so they flew us out to Kansas. We drove back from the airport through flood waters. It was pretty much like a boat going down the interstate.”
As for offering advice to younger players who want to pursue volleyball, Allison mentioned the word “sacrifice” right away, noting it takes discipline and sacrifice in order to spend time honing the skills necessary to keep playing at the highest level.
“I had a really good experience in Aurora. I enjoyed playing under coach (Lois) Hixson,” she stated. “We went to state a couple years. She and my Nebraska Juniors coach helped me and encouraged me, to get me to where I wanted to be.
“But you have to find a good club. Those (tournaments) are where the college coaches see you. That’s where I got all my looks from out-of-state. My 17s coach is the one who found UNCG. She was really helpful.”
Allison headed back to Greensboro a week ago and will graduate this spring, but she said she may stay around the area for awhile.
“I have an internship in Greensboro and they said if they like me, they’ll hire me full time. I’d like to maybe stay around a little bit to find out what it’s like to be out of college there, but eventually I want to come back home.”
For the past eight years Allison has been working and training hard to put up big numbers every time she steps onto the court, so she’s definitely ready for a break. With her accounting degree soon in hand, there’s no doubt she’ll have little trouble handling a few more numbers off the volleyball court.
DAVE BRADLEY can be reached at advertising@hamilton.net.

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