Penn State Women’s Volleyball: Best Show in Town?

August 29, 2011 at 2:12 pm 1 comment

In this photo by Steve Manuel, shooting for Penn State Athletic Communications, you can see how tough it was to find a seat Saturday night in Rec Hall.

To put it mildly, the Penn State women’s volleyball team was in a tough spot Saturday night.

The four-time defending NCAA champions entered the season with the top ranking again, and then they lost to Oregon on Friday night at the AVCA Showcase at Rec Hall, snapping an NCAA record 94-game home match winning streak.

And there they were the next night, down 0-2 to No. 2 USC.

The spectacular crowd—6,165 strong, including Graham Spanier, a chunk of the men’s basketball team, two guys wearing matching blue and white mouse heads, respectively, and a baby girl in the balcony that my mom would have described as “just hatched”—was beginning to file out.

Then things got fun. Led by two freshmen and a sophomore—Deja McClendon, Outstanding Player of last year’s NCAA Championship—the Nittany Lions found their poise and their power and stormed back to beat USC in five sets.

How did they do it? “The feeling of losing at home was horrible,” McClendon said. “I just didn’t want to do it again.”

Seems too simple, huh? But this is a program that often plays at its best when its back is to the wall. Think back to the 2009 NCAA title match, when the Nittany Lions roared back from an 0-2 deficit against Texas.

Remember this player: freshman setter Micha (MIKE-a) Hancock, who played a superb game.

Everything started to click for the Nittany Lions in the third set. McClendon and freshman Nia Grant pounded the ball over the net, and the crowd responded, sounding just as loud as earlier although it was shrinking. And freshman Micha Hancock, making her first start at setter, controlled parts of the match, serving six aces and even slamming seven kills. She said the players clicked so well that several times during the match, she got chills. (No mean feat in sweltering Rec Hall.)

The fans rushed the court after the final point, and Coach Russ Rose was quick to give them credit. (Not for leaving their seats, but for their enthusiasm.) Hardly given to hyperbole, Rose called the crowd the best he’d seen in 33 years in women’s volleyball. The remaining fans were a hardy bunch: The match ended at 11:35 p.m.

Nearly as fun: The post-match media conference. Rose, of course, is always a character, and in addition to providing actual game analysis, he sprinkled in a few one-liners. (Sometimes he managed both at once: Asked what he told his team at intermission, he described how USC senior Alex Jupiter had dominated the first two games and said, “I asked if anybody wanted to be our Jupiter. I think Deja said, ‘I’ve got some time.’”)

At other points, one of the captains, Kristin Carpenter, set him up perfectly. After Hancock, a native of Edmond, Okla., explained how she calmed her nerves, Carpenter jumped in to add, “That’s how they do it in Oklahoma.” Which gave Rose the perfect opening: “When they’re not fleeing tornadoes.”

Later, Carpenter gave a little soliloquy on how she doesn’t care what position she plays. She was the setter—but not a natural one—on last year’s NCAA title team, and with the emergence of Hancock over the weekend, it appears that she’ll be suiting up as libero, the defensive specialist. Which is fine with her. “This is kind of what I was recruited for,” she said. “Last year was kind of a freak accident. I told Coach I’ll play whatever he wants to play. … I love volleyball. I’m a gym rat, I’m a junkie, whatever you want to call it. I’ve spent most of my life in spandex. Not many people can say that.”

Interjected Rose, “And be proud of it.”

Rose noted repeatedly that Saturday night was an “event.” He cautioned that his team is still young—five of the seven starters were freshmen or sophomores—and that such a result wouldn’t necessarily have happened on USC’s floor, or at a neutral court. All the same, it was still an impressive comeback.

“All the fans came to see us,” McClendon said. “We needed to give them a show.”

Mission accomplished.

Lori Shontz, senior editor

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