It is a well-known fact that you do not count out Russ Rose-coached teams in the month of December. December is, of course, when the NCAA tournament comes rolling around, and never mind the fact that this year's incredibly young Nittany Lion squad fell down the stretch, dropping three of their final five matches (to Minnesota, Michigan and Nebraska, in three, four, and three sets, respectively), Coach Rose will whip them into shape, and get them ready to play come tournament time.
It is known.
This past weekend saw the #8 Lions play host at Rec Hall to round one of the NCAA tournament, as they have so many years in the past. Friday started out much as years past have, with their 26th straight first round sweep of an NCAA opponent, getting the 3-0 (16, 8, 17) win over the Howard Bison, the MEAC champions, who came into the match with a 18-13 (11-1) record. Led by 12 kills by sophomore Ali Frantti, Penn State hit .424 on the night and held their opponent to just .053 hitting--blocking 10 Bison shots.
Saturday, though, was a little tougher--as was their opponent. Dayton came into the night with the nation's longest active win streak at 25 matches, and the Flyers put the Lions on notice early, winning the second set with confidence by hitting .556 in that set to Penn State's .111. Dayton hit well against the Penn State attack, and went toe to toe against the Lions in almost every statistically category except the one that ultimately matters--the final score, which saw Rose's squad come out on top in four sets, 25-17, 13-25, 25-14, 25-17. Overall, Frantti once again paced the Lions in hitting, leading the team along with senior Aiyana Whitney with 14 kills each. Senior Megan Courtney, whose all-around game has grown leaps and bounds over her four years in the program, led the team in digs.
The pair of wins catapults the Lions, seeded seventh in the tournament, into the second weekend of the tournament, the 13th in a row for the program--the longest active such streak in the nation. They'll face Hawaii, the winners of the Big West conference, in the Des Moines regional; the Rainbow Wahine are 28-1 overall on the year, and now that Dayton have fallen now have the longest current win streak.
Hawaii is unseeded headed into the tournament, but is actually ranked seventh in the AVCA volleyball rankings--a tough draw for Penn State, and the toughest matchup of the next round. They defeated an unranked TCU squad in five sets in the first round of the tournament, and 10th seeded (and 15th ranked) Texas A&M to get to the regional semifinal.
If the Lions manage to make it past the Rainbow Wahine, they'll face the winner of Illinois-Minnesota; that rematch pits the Golden Gophers, who are seeded #2 overall, against the #25 Illini. The two squads only met once on the year, with the Illini hanging tough and forcing five sets in Minneapolis before ultimately falling to the Big Ten champs.
Penn State split their two matches with Minnesota this year, winning in five sets at home and losing in straights on the road very recently, and beat Illinois in four sets in Champaign in the lone matchup against that squad this year.
With just three seniors seeing signifiant time on the squad (and one of them, Kendall Pierce, newly annointed to her starting position within the last month), it will be for us to see how far Rose can take this squad--and just how much, exactly, is known.