The Penn State women's volleyball team of 2012 was poised for greatness, young but incredibly talented. After a relative step back in 2011 despite the star power of returning Big Ten freshman of the year Deja McClendon, the Nittany Lions didn't make it past the Lexington regional semifinals, and came back to State College to regroup, and look forward.
They lost only two seniors to graduation for the next season, Outside Hitter Katie Kabbes and Defensive Specialist/Libero Megan Shifflett. Replacing them on the roster was a bevy of talent that had waited in the wings, watching and learning and ready to go.
Leading that talent was sophomore setter Micha Hancock. In 2011, former defensive specialist Kristin Carpenter had shifted over to the setter position out of need; she had taken over for Alisha Glass after the 2009 season, and the seniors around her in 2010 (L Alyssa D'Errico and OHs Arielle Wilson and Blair Brown) helped mask the change and lead the Lions to another national title. In another program, Carpenter would have won the setter position outright in her senior season--but this isn't just another program, and coach Russ Rose has always been one to play the best player for each position and for the team, no matter their time in the program or how hard they work.
And Hancock made a difference immediately, as a talented true setter alongside freshman OH Megan Courtney, a resurging McClendon, Libero Dominique Gonzalez, OH Nia Grant, Opposite Ariel Scott, and an ever-under appreciated Middle Hitter Katie Slay. Starting the season as the #4 team in the nation, the Lions beat an always-strong Stanford squad (#9) in five sets the day before sweeping Texas in early season play. The Longhorns went on to win the national title, losing more matches (four) than the Lions did all season. After that second weekend of NCAA action, the Nittany Lions bumped up to #1 in the nation, a ranking they wouldn't relinquish until the final weekend of the season.
Floating through the season with only two losses (a random upset from an Oregon State squad that didn't make the tournament, and a late October five set loss to #4 Nebraska in Lincoln, perhaps the toughest volleyball venue in the nation), the Lions won the Big Ten conference outright for the fifteenth time and headed to the NCAA Tournament, the last few rounds of which were held in Louisville, the odds-on favorites.
And they decimated their competition to begin the tournament, dropping only one set in the first four rounds en route to the KFC Yum! Center (to Big Ten foe Minnesota in the Purdue regional final).
But then relative tragedy, and the referees, struck in Kentucky. After winning the first set 25-21, Hancock hurt her ankle. Carpenter came in briefly, but Rose elected to stay with his sophomore star despite the injury and her inability to move, and serve, like her normal self. Penn State got down significantly multiple times in the second, but with their grit and determination, clawed their way back into the second set.
Hancock began a run behind the service line, getting them to their first of many set points. Though her patented jump serve wasn't its normal #booming self, it was still better than so many others--this was the season she set the NCAA tournament record for aces with 22. They had set point, up 27-26, on the verge of securing an almost-indomitable 2-0 lead. Then this happened:
Note: In volleyball, no player is allowed to touch the net. If any player touches the net, it is a point for the other team. The Oregon hitter touched the net so much that the net moved--yet the referees did not call a net violation. In addition, the set that assisted that hit was a blatant lift--also illegal--such an egregious pair of no-calls that play by play announcer Karch Karaly loudly said "Oh My Gosh" incredulously after it, and Beth Mowins felt the need to remark how upset Rose was--because he never gets up off his seat, and he got up off his seat.
Many minutes and multiple set points for Oregon later, and Karaly would be remarking how he could still hear Rose yelling about the awfulness of the call. When the set ended (Oregon won), Rose sniped at the scoring table on the way into the locker room. The Lions ended up losing the match 3-1, only the second time they've lost in an NCAA semifinal.
I’m not normally one to blame a loss entirely on referees (and I’m not alone). And, granted, the Ducks could have still come back and won in five sets had the above call been correctly made. But, as the Nittany Lions themselves have proved, it is really, really hard to come back from a two-set deficit—and to do so against an elite team like the Nittany Lions were this season is even tougher. Oregon themselves went on to be swept by Texas the very next match—a Longhorn team that, as stated above, PSU themselves swept earlier in the year. Now, the transitive property isn’t much in college sports, but it isn’t exactly nothing either.
Back in 2012, instant replay in volleyball didn't exist. It took two years after this call, but in time for last season, instant replay--and the implementation of it for net violations--was allowed for the 2015 season. And of course, Rose is on board.
And what did the 2012 season-ending loss do for the Penn State Nittany Lions? It didn't let them down, only spurred them on to two more back-to-back national titles in 2013 (with a 25-game win streak) and 2014 (with Hancock winning AVCA Player of the Year). No big deal.
Ball don’t lie...even if it takes a year.