Penn State volleyball takes on Cal tonight in the NCAA National Championship game. The Nittany Lions will be looking for their fourth straight title after a big win over Texas in the Final Four the other night. Penn State has ended Cal's season each of the last three years, but this year's Golden Bears squad has fought through and made it all the way to the championship game and might be the best Cal teams Penn State has played yet. For a preview of what we might see on the other side of the net tonight, here's a Q and A with Avinash from California Golden Blogs. He helps us break down this Cal team and prepare for the big game.
We'll have an open thread later tonight, so stay tuned for that. The game is on ESPN2 at 8:30 p.m.
1. How does this team compare to the previous Cal tournament teams?
This is a more complete squad than the previous Golden Bears teams that've played in the NCAA tournament. They're simply solid in all facets of the game. They have great inside hitting and outside hitting. They dig well when they have to and and block well too. Setter Carli Lloyd sets the tone with her strong passing, a decent kill shot, and good sense of who to pass to at all times, and the young hitters are making their presence felt. It's a surprising run (I don't think we were even predicted to finish in the top 2 of the Pac-10, much less win it all), but the senior leadership of Lloyd seems to be the steadying factor in bringing them this far.
Oh, plus there's the answer to #2.
2. Who's the player to watch out for?
Tarah Murrey. Her improvement from last year to this year is incredible; she really dedicated herself to become a student of the game, and is now very hard to stop offensively. Her attack percentage is one of the best in the country. When Lloyd sets her up properly, she's unstoppable. When Lloyd doesn't give her the greatest pass, Murrey still can make it look pretty impressive with an array of cross court hits, down-the-line moves, soft touches, back-line kills, etc. She's averaging 5.23 kills per set (3rd in the country) and 5.81 points per set (6th in the country). I honestly think she'll be competing for a National Team spot if she continues her progression.
Her and Lloyd have really set the tone for this team. Lloyd is the leader, but Murrey is the firebrand. Without her offensive efficiency and an underrated defensive game, Cal would not have made it this far.
3. What's the biggest strength of this team?
People would say it's their hitting (3rd best hitting percentage in the nation), but I'd have to say their improved defense. Cal got pummeled by USC's outside hitting in their first two matches; in the Final Four, they dug out almost every ball, soft-blocked a lot at the net and took the bite out of the Trojan attacking scheme. For all the pub we get about our attackers, Cal is also one of the top five blocking teams in the nation, right on par with Penn State.
Additionally, for some reason in the tourney, we've rarely played our greatest (except for the Washington match, where we flat-out brought it, or maybe the Stanford games), but we commit so few errors while our opponents kill themselves. It just seems a lot of teams have their worst game against us and we take advantage. I credit our solid defense for that--other than USC, everyone has struggled going straight at us this season.
We probably can't count on the Nittany Lions hastening their demise, so we're going to have to take it to them and see what happens.
4. What's the biggest weakness?
It's hard to say. This team doesn't do anything particularly bad. They haven't dropped one set in the tournament--they've been dominant at times and lucky at others, but they've found a way to stay perfect throughout.
If there's anything stopping them from winning tonight, it'll be the fact that this is the title game, and they haven't been here before--Penn State has, and they've beaten Cal three years running, so they'll have that mental confidence that they've done this before. If they come out and play shaky, or try to do too much, then anything is possible.
Also, youth could play a factor--libero Robin Rostratter (sophomore), inside hitter Shannon Hawari (redshirt sophomore), outside hitters Adrienne Gehan (true freshman) and Correy Johnson (sophomore) have all played very well during this run, but they'll have some inconsistent moments. Will they be able to execute as well if Penn State keys in on Murrey's attacking? They're going to have to step up big for Cal to claim the prize.