Russ Rose knows the back stretch of women's volleyball seasons, and to find proof you need look no further than this year's current stretch of 47 consecutive sets won--not the best that we've seen out of Penn State's women's volleyball program, of course (we're forever spoiled), but impressive to be sure.
Coming into this season, PSU was going to be an unlikely contender to repeat the national title; but many have them picked as having as good a chance as any, off the combined strength of their veterans (led by senior Setter Micha Hancock, Libero Dom Gonzalez, OH Nia Grant and DS Lacey Fuller) and the virtually unstoppable force that has become the tandem of true freshmen Haleigh Washington and Ali Frantti--part of volleyball's #1 incoming recruiting class. Add in juniors Megan Courtney, who had arguably her best game of the season against her hometown Flyer team, and Aiyana Whitney, and this team is poised to go far.
The first teams in the way were Siena, the MAAC champion, and Dayton, the A10 Champion. Siena put up a fight in the first set, coming within eight points, but ultimately the Nittany Lions' smothering defense was too much; PSU held them to .011 hitting on the night, while hitting over .400 themselves. Hancock, who had previously been Penn State's single-season service ace record holder and had tied for the conference record, had seven aces on Friday, giving her sole possession of the Big Ten single-season service ace record--and on Saturday, her three gave her NCAA's record, with 119. Penn State cruised in the second two sets, winning 25-10 and 25-5.
Saturday saw the Lions face a tougher Dayton squad who held their own much of the night, but just couldn't keep pace with the bigger, more athletic Penn State team down the stretch. Courtney was on fire, hitting .440 with 11 kills and no errors, and the Lions hit over .400 for the second straight night, taking the win 25-20, 25-18, 25-16.
PSU will next take on UCLA on Friday at 7 pm on ESPN 3 in the regional semifinals. The Bruins beat LIU Brooklyn and Long Beach State, both in straight sets, en route to the regional semi; one of the storylines to watch may be former UCLA player Skylar Dykstra, who transferred to Penn State this past offseason but hasn't seen time for the blue and white this year.
If the Nittany Lions get past the Bruins, they'll take on a familiar foe--the other regional semi pits Ohio State and #4 seed Wisconsin, both of whom Penn State swept in their combined three meetings this year.