Women's Volleyball Enters NCAA Tourney #1

OH Nia Grant and RS Ariel Scott go up for a block. - Cari Greene

Staying at home for two more matches, the Nittany Lions look for their sixth National Title, and fifth in the last six years.

The Penn State women's volleyball team is riding high in this 2012 comeback season, having secured the #1 seed (and ranking) in the NCAA tournament after a 29-2 regular season that saw them easily secure the Big Ten title, its eighth title in the last nine years.

At 7:30 pm tonight, the Nittany Lions look to defeat the Binghampton Bearcats, who are 13-17 on the season and won the America East conference championships to secure the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. This will be the Bearcats third time at the tournament, after only jumping up to Division 1 women's volleyball in 2001. Ironically, in Binghampton's other two tournament appearances, they lost to the Nittany Lions in University Park (in 2005 and 2009).

When the Nittany Lions get past the Bearcats (with all due respect, that won't be an issue), on Saturday at 7:30, they'll face either Yale (18-5) or Bowling Green (21-10), who won the Ivy and MAC leagues, respectively. It's the fourth trip to the tournament for the Bulldogs, who've won their last fifteen matches of the season and were undefeated in tournament play; the Falcons, on the other hand, are making their first tournament appearance in 21 years. Penn State has beaten Yale the three times they've played (in 2007, and twice in 2008), and has never faced Bowling Green.

If the Nittany Lions make it out of State College with wins in the first two rounds, they'll head to West Lafayette, home of Purdue, for the Regional semifinal and finals (on December 7-8). The national semifinals and finals will be held this year at the University of Louisville on December 13 and 15 (incidentally, where the Nittany Lions picked up their first three victories this season, and the home of OH Deja McClendon). You can find the full draw of the tournament on the association's website, here.

The Nittany Lions are one of two NCAA teams to have gone to every since NCAA women's volleyball tournament since its inception. This year began with lowered expectations, but with the team's second weekend wins over perennial powerhouses Stanford and Texas in the Nike Big Four tournament at Rec Hall, the Nittany Lions soon jumped to #1 in the overall rankings. They ceded that #1 ranking for some weeks during the season, following losses to Oregon State in five sets in neutral Chicago, and then again when they fell to defending Big Ten Champ Nebraska in Lincoln in late October, also in five sets. They regained their number one ranking for the last time this season on November 18, amidst their incredibly strong closing to the regular season (the Nittany Lions only dropped two sets in their eight games following the close loss to the Cornhuskers).

After somewhat of a blip last year, losing in the NCAA Regional Semifinal last year, the Lions have roared back in 2012 from the strong play of S Micah Hancock, RS Ariel Scott, MH Katie Slay, L/DS Dominique Gonzalez and McClendon, as well as freshman phenom OH Megan Courtney (whom, if you recall, coach Russ Rose preseason called the player with the most volleyball knowledge he's every coached). Coach Rose joins the ranks of nearly every Big Ten fall sports coach in being named conference coach of the year.

The Big Ten named Scott the conference player of the year, the seventh Nittany Lion to win that honor within the last eight years; heading into the tournament, she only needs 40 kills to reach the 1,000-career-kill milestone. Hancock was named the conference setter of the year after being named the freshman of the year in 2011, and Courtney was unsurprisingly the freshman of the year--the eleventh Nittany Lion to receive that award. In addition to Hancock and Scott, Slay (2011's B1G defensive player of the year) and McClendon (2010's B1G freshman of the year) were named All-Big Ten.

If you have a CBS Sports subscription, you can watch the first and second round action online here. If, like me, you're too cheap for that, you can follow the action on the Penn State volleyball website gametracker, or follow the team @PSUWomenVball for updates on twitter.


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