It was a disappointing end to an otherwise stellar season last night: the #1 Nittany Lions fell to #5 Oregon in four sets, 21-25, 30-28, 25-21, 25-19. Penn State's final record for 2012 was an impressive 33-3, and this was the only match all year in which they didn't win at least two sets.
The Nittany Lions entered the 2012 season after a relatively disappointing season in 2011, when they lost to eventual champion UCLA in the regional semifinal, and many expected that the team was still one year away from true greatness. The squad will return all of its starters in 2013, as only one real contributor (Kristin Carpenter, the starting setter on the 2010 National Championship squad) will be leaving the program after this year.
The national semi last night started off well for the Lions, who went point for point with the Ducks in the first set before pulling away late to win it 25-21.
Much as they did in their regional final at Nebraska, Oregon started off the second set with a bang, dominating all play and going up significantly in set two. Then B1G Setter of the Year Micha Hancock suffered an ankle injury, which required her to sit for a while as Carpenter, who hadn't seen much time at that position in almost two years, came in almost cold to run the Lions' offense. They traded a few points with the Ducks, but it quickly became 20-10 in the set and many fans were looking forward to regrouping after the break.
But the Nittany Lions had other ideas. Hancock, re-taped up, was inserted back into the lineup, and Katie Slay went into BEAST BLOCK mode as the Lions clawed their way back into the set, actually having three set points. It was on one of those PSU set points that the deciding point of the match occurred: a glaring pair non-calls, in which the Oregon setter clearly had double contact on a ball, which she set to the outside hitter, whose hand came down on the net after the kill (both of which, if you didn't know, are clear violations, and award the point to the opposing team). No call, and Oregon got the kill.
An indication of how egregious the non-call was? PSU coach Russ Rose actually stood up to argue with the referee team. The tandem calling the match for ESPN, Beth Mowins and Karch Kiraly, were equally astounded. That play in itself seemed to let the wind out of the sails of the comeback in that set, and the Ducks held on, going on to win 30-28.
It was all Oregon, all the time after that. Penn State just wasn't playing like Penn State the rest of the match, as the Lions had what felt like two blocks in the final two sets, and none of their hitters, not B1G POY Ariel Scott nor freshman of the Year Megan Courtney nor hometown hero Deja McClendon, could get anything going. And they weren't helped by a clearly-hobbled Hancock, whose traditional jump serve was reduced to a floater, and L Dominque Gonzalez, who just seemed slightly off all match. The final two sets felt less close than the score indicates, and indeed the fourth set saw the Lions down 20-10 again, but they couldn't mount a comeback near as close to the second set should-have-won.
What's next for the Lions? Well, 2012 is obviously done (the Ducks will face #3 Texas, with assistant coach and former Nittany Lion Salima Rockwell on the sideline, in the finals on Saturday), but we do have the #1 ranked recruiting class coming in next year. Rose's offseason and preseason training regimens are notoriously tough, and will prepare the team, both new members and old, for the 2013 season like no other.
As stated above, all the starters return; all four All-Americans, all who made the All-B1G and all-West Lafayette regional squad. So, despite the fact that the team *only* made the national semifinals this year, they're poised to do incredibly well next year, when we should expect nothing but big things from them.
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