Penn State volleyball team eyes NCAA semis
It's been more than three months since the Penn State women's volleyball team opened the season with a tournament in Kentucky.
Now, the Nittany Lions are back in Louisville — this time with much higher stakes.
Top-seeded Penn State (33-2) faces Oregon (29-4) at 9 p.m. Thursday in the NCAA semifinals. The other semifinal pits Texas (27-4) against Michigan (27-11) at 7 p.m. Thursday. The winners meet for the national championship at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Penn State won four consecutive national titles from 2007-10, so last year's early departure in the regional semifinals was an eye-opener.
“We were very, very young last year,” said assistant coach Kaleena Davidson, a 2002 Mt. Lebanon graduate. “We had a lot of freshmen and sophomores on the court.”
The squad returned mostly intact, however, and the individual honors that continue to roll in indicate last season's bitter experience could pay off.
Penn State features four American Volleyball Coaches Association All-Americans, including two on the first team — junior Ariel Scott and sophomore Micha Hancock — along with junior Katie Slay (second team) and junior Deja McClendon (third team).
• Scott, the Big Ten Player of the Year, led the team in kills (451). “She's a very, very physical player,” Davidson said.
• Hancock, the Big Ten Setter of the Year, set the NCAA Tournament record with 22 aces so far. “Because she's a lefty, she has a little bit of an unusual spin on the ball when she serves,” Davidson said. “She's caused a lot of teams some problems passing, for sure.”
• Slay, last year's Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, is seventh in the nation in hitting percentage (.421).
• McClendon is second on the team with 389 kills and surpassed 1,000 for her career this season.
Megan Courtney, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and sophomore Nia Grant also made significant contributions. There are also the players who might not get as much recognition, like libero Dominique Gonzalez or backrow substitute Lacey Fuller.
In other words, Penn State's young squad has matured.
“I think we're all really excited to be back, especially after last year. Our freshman year, we were just sort of along for the ride,” Slay said. “... This year, it's a lot more responsibility. We're excited to have a leadership role and be back and help lead this team.”
To get back on top, the Nittany Lions will have to knock off up-and-coming Oregon, which showed composure last week with a four-set win in Omaha, Neb., over the Cornhuskers. Oregon runs a quick-moving offense that's near impossible to replicate in practice.
“They're a good team, but we don't have to do anything different. We know how to play, just doing what we can do,” Courtney said. “I think they'll give us a good match because they're a very good team. It'll be a good match to watch, but I think the best team who goes hard will win.”
And as far as appearing in so many NCAA Tournaments getting old? It hasn't happened.
“If you're in coaching, you want your kids to play at the highest level,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said. “... I want them to understand they have a small window of time to try and do great things, and I'm just in charge of reminding them when they're off task.”
Mike Palm is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-380-5674.