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Welcome to the Wonderful World of NCAA Women's Volleyball

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One of the most decorated Penn Staters to ever play volleyball, Megan Hodge is now a member of the US National Team.  Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE
One of the most decorated Penn Staters to ever play volleyball, Megan Hodge is now a member of the US National Team. Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love Russ Rose.

Later this month, the Penn State Nittany Lions women's volleyball team kicks off its 2012 season, looking to avenge an unexpectedly less than stellar 2011 season (comparatively, at least). With the increased readership that BSD has picked up this past year, we decided to do a primer on the second favorite sports team on campus for many members of the BSD community (sorry, Coach Sanderson, Galen, and Rambler).

For those of you who've followed women's volleyball for years, this may be a refresher course; for those relatively new to the sport, this may be an informative post on the recent dominance of a team of hardworking, tough, and, in the case of much of the male BSD community, attractive student athletes.

The beginning of it all...

Penn State first fielded a women's volleyball team in 1974, as a club team. In 1976, American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Tom Tait convinced the University adminstration to add both men's and women's volleyball to the school's repertoire of varsity sports. Tait coached both genders' teams through the 1978 season, compiling a 51-43-4 record as the women's coach, when he stepped down from the women's team to focus on the men. Tait's success with the men's team is a post for another day; it was a different coach that led the women's team to the heights of greatness it currently sits at. You may have heard of him.

Russ Rose played volleyball himself at George Williams College, a member of the school's 1974 national championship team. He stayed at his alma mater for two years, helping coach the women's team to a pair of state titles and the men's team to another national championship in 1977. He spent the 1978 women's season in Lincoln, NE, finishing up a masters degree (his reported thesis subject? volleyball statistics) and helping coach the Cornhuskers' storied program.

Then Penn State came calling.

Rose was named head coach of the Nittany Lions women's volleyball team in 1978, a title he has held (along with that of professor) every year since. Rose has led the Nittany Lions to eight Atlantic 10 Conference Championships, fourteen Big Ten Championships, and five National Championships. He's one of three Division 1 coaches to have notched more than 1,000 career wins, has the highest winning percentage in NCAA history, and his teams have never tallied less than 22 wins per season. He was inducted into the AVCA Hall of Fame in 2007 and was named coach of the year four times, the most in his profession. He's coached 28 different All-American players, including three 4-time All-American selections. Of his 32 seasons as head coach at Penn State, only one year's team did not include at least one All-American selection.

Penn State is one two teams that has been to the NCAA volleyball tournament every year since its inception, in 1981, the other being the Stanford Cardinal. Before joining the Big Ten conference in 1991 (two years before the football team), the women's volleyball team dominated the Atlantic Ten Conference, winning eight straight conference championships and never losing a conference match. They've shown some dominance in the Big Ten, as well, winning that conference in all but six of the twenty years they've participated in competition.

The first National Championship

The Nittany Lions had made it to three separate NCAA finals in the years leading up to the 1999 final, including two straight in 1997 and 1998. The 1999 season started off poorly, with a loss in their first match of the year; the team, however, was able to turn it around. This year marked the second straight that Penn State had gone undefeated in Big Ten conference play, becoming the first team in conference history to do so. They were lead by senior Lauren Cacciamani, who was named championship MVP for the second straight year. Cacciamani was also named the National and Conference player of the year, the Big Ten Female Athlete of the Year, and, along with fellow senior Bonnie Bremner, first-team All-American.

Seeded number one and playing host in one of the four regions leading up to the tournament semi finals in Hawaii, Penn State didn't drop a set at home, besting Robert Morris, Baylor, Minnesota, and UCLA in succession. The semi-finals provided the stoutest test for the team, as they dug it out in five sets against Pacific, who ended the season with only three losses of their own. The Nittany Lions then took on Stanford, the team that had bested them in 1997 for the title.

Stanford came out relatively flat, counting 19 hitting errors in the opening set, perhaps intimidated byt the Nittany Lions' ten blocks in that set alone. Cacciamani had twenty kills in the match, outplaying fellow National Player of the Year Kerri Walsh resoundingly, hitting .344 to Walsh's .000. Penn State ended up defeating the Cardinal in straight sets (the only team that season to sweep Stanford) to bring the trophy back to Happy Valley.

Building a Dynasty

With the advent of rally scoring in 2001, the next few years were relatively down ones for the Nittany Lion volleyball program, notching conference championship from 2003-2006 but not making much of a dent on the national scene.

The 2005 season, however, set the tone for seasons to come, finishing the season having lost only three games. Then-freshman Nicole Fawcett (now an alternate on the US National team) gained national Freshman of the Year honors, senior Kaleena Walters (now a member of the Penn State coaching staff) being named conference Defensive Player of the Year, and senior Sam Tortorello being named unanimous conference Player of the Year. Tortorello was named a first team All-American, with Fawcett and sophomore Melissa Walbridge were named to the second team.

The Nittany Lions started out 2006 very well, winning their first 21 games, but fell in the NCAA regional final, ultimately finishing with a 32-3 record. This season's fourth consecutive outright Big Ten Championship tied the previous record set by the Penn State squads of 1996-1999, before breaking it in years to come.

Two thousand six saw the addition of current US National team member Megan Hodge, who was the first freshman ever to be named Big Ten Player of the Year. She also garnered Freshman of the Year and Gatorade National Player of the Year honors, the first ever volleyball player to do so, and joined Fawcett on the All-American first team. Then sophomore, and current US National team player, Christa Harmotto was named to the second team, and Rose picked up his eighth Big Ten Coach of the Year award.

The first in a series

Penn State's perfect conference record and fifth straight outright conference title paved the way for a memorable season in 2007, which saw the team finish with an overall 34-2 record. The Nittany Lions saw their first number one ranking since their 1999 championship squad, and setting the stage for an incredible four year run.

Harmotto won conference Player of the Year, the third different Nittany Lion in a row to do so, and was joined by freshman Arielle Wilson as Freshman of the Year. Harmotto, Hodge, and Fawcett were first team All-Amercans, and sophomore Alisha Glass, now currently an alternate on the US National Team, was named to the second team. Rose saw another conference Coach of the Year award, and was also named National Coach of the Year, the first coach to win this award three times.

Penn State went into the NCAA tournament seeded third, but again played host in a Univeristy Park regional. Once again, the Nittany Lions didn't drop a set en route to the final four, this year held in Sacramento, CA; they rolled over Siena, Albany, Michigan, and BYU in quick sucession.

Penn State was the only non-California team in the final four, defeating Cal in the semifinals before once again matching up with Stanford in the NCAA final. Penn State was ranked #1 in the coaches poll, but seeded third; Stanford was seeded first but ranked first. This was the third time in ten years that Penn State met the Cardinal in the NCAA finals.

The Nittany Lions roared out to a 2-0 lead in the finals in front of the second largest crowd in NCAA history. The Cardinal came back, however, winning games three and four--the first games that Penn State had lost in the tournament. After an early Stanford lead in the fifth, the Nittany Lions took control and avenged their last loss, a September five setter that Stanford had pulled out. The 2007 Penn State team set two separate NCAA tournament records that still stand today; they hit .424, over the tournament (shattering the previous record of .369), and set the record for number of aces in the tournament with 43.

The best ever?

The 2008 Nittany Lions volleyball team is arguable the best team fielded in the history of the collegiate start. They were dominant from start to finish, not dropping a set in the entire regular season, and going undefeated the entire year. They broke the record for consecutive matches won (52), as well as the record for consecutive sets won (105), winning 111 straight sets up until the National semifinals. The team set a rally-era record for hitting percentage, .390, which to date is the second-highest percentage for the entire era of women's collegiate volleyball.

Fawcett, Harmotto, Wilson, Hodge, and Glass were all named first team All-Big Ten. Fawcett was again named conference player of the year, the fourth straight Nittany Lion to claim that honor, and Rose was again conference coach of the year. Harmotto was named the Academic All-American of the Year, and Fawcett was named AVCA National Player of the Year, the program's second ever after Cacciamani. Rose was the first ever coach to repeat as National Coach of the Year.

Once again, the Nittany Lions were regional hosts; this time, they were the consensus number one team, both in rankings and in seeding. They swept Long Island, Yale, Western Michigan, and Cal en route to the semifinals in Omaha, NE, where they faced the home team in the second semifinal. They started quickly, dominating the Huskers in the first two sets, but Nebraska roared back in sets three and four, the first team all season to take sets off of the defending National Championship. The tone of the fifth and deciding set, however, was set by Fawcett, who served six straight points to give the Nittany Lions the momentum and the berth in the National Championship game.

Penn State once again faced Stanford in the NCAA final in 2008, the first time in history that the same two teams met in the finals in consecutive years. And, though the Cardinal was looking to avenge their loss from the year before, Penn State had a different idea.

This championship match started off as close as the one from 2007, but halfway through the first set, the Nittany Lions woke up. They dominated from then on, closing out the Cardinal (along with current USA womens volleyball team member Foluke Akinradewo) in three straight sets, making Stanford the first team to ever lose in three consecutive title matches. Penn State became the second team ever (USC from '03 being the first) to be undefeated repeat championships, and one of four teams overall to be undefeated in a season. They were also only the third team ever to go the entire season ranked number one.

Penn State ended up 2008 going 114-2 in sets, 38-0 in matches, led the NCAA in blocks, and broke the aforementioned records, all in this one season.

The record breaker

On the heels of the record-breaking, best team ever 2008 season, 2009 was bound to be a let down, right? Replacing four-year stars Harmotto and Fawcett looked to be huge, and few expected the Nittany Lions to dominate again.

Those few would have been wrong. Penn State again went undefeated in 2009, being the first team in NCAA history to have two straight undefeated seasons and extending their record of consecutive matches won to 102. They only lost eight sets the entire regular season, and this year saw Coach Rose reach his 1,000 win milestone.

Coach Rose was again named Big Ten Coach of the Year, and Hodge was named conference Player of the Year for the second time. Freshman Darcy Dorton was named conference Freshman of the Year, and Hodge, Glass, Wilson, and fellow junior Blair Brown were all First-Team All-Big Ten. Hodge was the National Player of the year, and was named an All-American for the fourth straight year. Hodge was also named Academic All-American of the Year, the program's second consecutive winner of this honor. Hodge, Glass, Brown, and Wilson were all named first-team All Americans.

For the first time in a few years, the Nittany Lions were not hosting a region in the NCAA tournament; this didn't impede their dominance, however, beating Binghamton, Penn, Florida, and Cal, all in straight sets, in Gainesville. They had a short ride to the final four, held in Tampa, where they dropped their first set of the tournament versus Hawaii in the semis, before pulling out a win 3-1.

Then came the final, the Texas Longhorns, and former Penn Stater Salima Rockwell on the opposing sideline.

The Longhorns came out firing behind now-US National team leader Destinee Hooker, who had led them to just one loss all season. Texas somewhat suprisingly took the first two sets against the Nittany Lions, 25-22 and 25-20. After the hard break, Penn State started the improbable comeback, with Hodge opening the third with a pair of kills and the rest of the team backing up her leadership. The Nittany Lions ended up closing out the set at 25-23, sending it to a fourth set. The Longhorns traded leads with the Nittany Lions before the latter seized an opportunity on an error, and Hodge put down a kill to win the fourth 25-21 and send it to a deciding fifith set.

The fifth set was just as close as the four preceding it, with a number of lead changes before Hodge, doing what she did, posted the final kill of the match and her collegiate career. With this victory, the Nittany Lions became the first team to win three consecutive national titles.

The most improbable season

With the graduation of four- and three-year starters Hodge and Glass, the expectations for the 2010 squad were much lower than for many years. A preseason number one based primarily on the previous years alone, the record win streak was stopped at 109 when the Nittany Lions lost to Stanford in September. They lost their first matches in the Big Ten in years, going 16-4 in the conference, but still managed to claim the conference title outright. Their Rec Hall home winning streak was extended for another year, to 94 home matches in a row won (an NCAA record).

Seniors Brown and Wilson were named to the All-American team for this season, and Freshman Deja McClendon was named both National and Big Ten Freshman of the Year and the NCAA Championship's most outstanding player. Brown was named the Big Ten Player of the Year, the sixth straight Nittany Lion to gain that honor, and she joined McClendon and Wilson to the All-Big Ten first team, and Coach yet again won the conference's Coach of the Year honors.

Behind a regular season record of 26-5, Penn State entered the tournament as the fourth overall seed but ended up being the favorite in the final four, as the top three seeds lost early in the tournament. The Nittany Lions were again pegged as hosts of one of the four regions of the tournament, and didn't drop a set versus Niagara, Virginia Tech, and Oklahoma, before defeating Duke 3-1 in the regional final.

The semifinals saw a rematch of the previous year's final, when the Nittany Lions faced the 9th-seeded Longhorns in St Louis. This year, however, wasn't even close, as the Penn State players dominated from the get go, sweeping Texas in straight sets, and went on to face the California Golden Bears in the final.

This was the fourth year in a row that Cal was playing Penn State in the NCAA tournament, the previous years meeting in rounds well before the finals. The Bears, behind their best team in the program's history, were looking for a different result in 2010, but the Nittany Lions were too good, and the seniors on the Penn State team were unwilling to learn what it meant to lose a National Championship match. The Nittany Lions dug it out in a straight-set match that was closer than the final score indicated, bringing Penn State its fourth straight NCAA championship and talk of a dynasty established in State College.

2011 and Beyond

Once again, expectations were lowered in 2011, but this time, the Nittany Lions couldn't pull out an NCAA title, not even winning the Big Ten championship. Newcomer Nebraska pulled out the title in their inaugural conference season, though fellow conference team Illinois ended up advancing all the way to the NCAA championship match, losing in four sets to UCLA.

The 94-game home winning streak was snapped in September when the Oregon Ducks beat Penn State in Rec Hall, and hampered by injuries, graduation, position changes, and 13 of 17 roster spots being held by freshmen or sophomores, the 2011 Nittany Lions finished the season with a 25-8 record.

For player awards, McClendon continued the Nittany Lion tradition and was named a first team All-American, and sophomore Katie Slay was named to the second team. Despite the relatively early loss in the regional semi-finals to eventual NCAA champion UCLA, the very young team gained valuable experience, and looks to improve this season and bring back talks of the Dynasty.

Stay tuned to BSD for more on the upcoming Women's Volleyball season in the weeks to come.

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