I should never count out Russ Rose.
Down 9-6 in the fifth, having watched his team play arguably the worst match they’d play all season (including the two losses they’d suffered in September at the hands of Texas and Michigan State), Coach Rose was cool, calm and collected in the timeout huddle, and that confidence rubbed off on his #2 ranked Nittany Lions, sparking a 6-0 run behind senior Katie Slay that pushed Penn State into the final four.
I was a doubter, Coach Rose. I was convinced the women’s volleyball season was done. But you, and your resilient squad, had other plans, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
On Friday, the Nittany Lions took on Michigan State in their regional semifinal, one of two B1G vs B1G matchups at this level. The Spartans were the last team to beat Penn State, overcoming the blue and white at Rec Hall in their conference opener in five set, and the match in Kentucky was the third time the two teams met this season (the Lions dominated MSU in East Lansing in November to the tune of a demoralizing straight set beatdown).
This matchup was a sort of combination of the previous two matches, with the Spartans taking the first set before the Nittany Lions calmed down and played their game, winning in four sets (22-25, 25-17, 25-17, 25-23). Typically led by seniors Ariel Scott and Deja McClendon (15 and 14 kills, respectively), sophomore Megan Courtney also came up big for PSU, who hit a respectable .283 for the night and outblocked the Spartans 11-4.
Then came the Stanford Cardinal.
Buoyed by the fact that Stanford was inexplicably forced to play so far East in a national tournament, this was the earliest these two storied programs had faced off in the NCAA tournament; the last two, of course, being PSU victories in the 2007 and 2008 national championship matches.
Stanford is a powerhouse team, finishing second in the deep PAC 12 and one of two women’s volleyball programs to have been invited to every single NCAA tournament (the other, of course, being Penn State). From the first set, they were able to get PSU out of their offense, off of their rhythm, and scrambling for points and rallies that had come so easy for the Nittany Lions for much of the season.
The Cardinal took the first set 25-22, holding PSU to an abysmal .049 hitting percentage. They didn’t hit much better themselves (.114), but were able to outblock and force Penn State into uncharacteristic errors; the Nittany Lions rallied behind McClendon, who finished the night with 21 kills and 16 digs, for the next set, winning 25-22 after nearly blowing a four point lead; the senior took control late, and was near-unstoppable heading into the intermission.
The third set was the closest of the match, with both teams hitting their best set of the night (.333 for PSU, .380 for Stanford) and sending the set into extra points. PSU eventually rallied despite the Cardinal’s four ties on PSU set points, with the Lions winning 28-26—the momentum into the fourth apparently with Penn State.
The #7 squad had other ideas, coming out on fire to start the fourth. The box score of the first set was bad; the numbers for the fourth were worse, with the Nittany Lions hitting 0%. Zero. Percent. At one point, the Cardinal was up by almost double digits before a Penn State rally put the final fourth set score at a more-respectable 25-18, and the squads headed into a fifth and decisive set.
Starting off the fifth where they left off the fourth, the Cardinal dominated to an early lead. But behind their seniors (in addition to McClendon, Scott had 22 kills), the Nittany Lions had grit and determination at the end of the match. Down 9-6, senior Katie Slay—she who had the national-championship-winning kill as a true freshman—took over, with a pair of blocks and a pair of kills that the Cardinal couldn’t do anything with. The Nittany Lions, all steel and resilience, fought back, winning the final set in a more dominating way than it started.
On Thursday night, the Lions will be in Seattle, taking on #3 PAC-12 winner (and home team) the University of Washington, who defeated conference foe USC in five sets to advance to the national semifinals. This is the fourth final four for the Huskies, and the program’s first since 2006.
UW had only dropped one set en route to its showdown with the Trojans, and found itself in a 2-0 hole before storming back, beating USC for the third time this season behind PAC 12 player of the year Krista Vansant’s insane 38 kills and 30 digs. Vansant was understandably named the Most Outstanding Player of the region behind the performance.