The inside of the KFC Yum! Center, home of the 2012 NCAA Volleyball Final Four - Andy Lyons
Making their first appearance in the Final Four, the Oregon women's volleyball team runs into a program that's making their eighteenth appearance, and won four consecutive National Titles from 2007-2010. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Penn State Nittany Lions:
Will Rubin: Penn State won four straight NCAA championships from 2007-2010, which is four more than Oregon's ever played for. Was the program a national power before that run, and what's the atmosphere around a volleyball team with that kind of tradition?
Cari Greene (Black Shoe Diaries): PSU's first national championship was in 1999 in Hawaii (after losing in the finals the year before), and we've typically been decent to good since the advent of NCAA women's volleyball. We're one of two programs (the other being Stanford) that has been to every single NCAA championship, but we didn't really start to play at an elite level until around 2005, which was our first undefeated season in the Big Ten.
The underclassmen on that team forged the way to the first of the dynasty national championships in 2007, which of course led to the others after that. It's tough to describe the atmosphere now, as it's even different from the way it was when I was at PSU (I graduated almost 10 years ago). Now, Rec Hall is packed for most matches, and the big ones get sold out--I don't remember this happening years ago. Additionally, the Big Ten has come up significantly as a conference, especially with the addition of Nebraska, and we've been able to schedule a lot more traditional volleyball powers in non-conference play.
Right now, the program and the fans at PSU expect to win and expect to play at an elite level year in and year out, and last year's loss in the Sweet Sixteen, even with a young and rebuilding team, was a disappointment--and it really shouldn't be, because that team really played its heart out and played at a level that set us up for a great run this year. Above all else, we expect to compete with (and, more often than not, beat) the best that volleyball has to offer, and that attracts more talent which helps breed more success.
WR: What were the expectations for this year after losing in the regional semifinal last year?
CG: Our setter, Micha Hancock, was the Big Ten freshman of the year last year, and the conference setter of the year this year. She dictates the play really well, and spreads out the sets to our myriad number of offensive weapons; additionally, if our underrated libero, Dominique Gonzalez, is called upon to set (she's quite good at that as well), Hancock can become an additional offensive weapon. You'll also probably hear about Big Ten freshman of the year of 2012 Megan Courtney, whom our coach Russ Rose says has the best volleyball mind of any player he's coached.
CG: I really think that this year, the Big Ten has pretty quietly become the best volleyball conference in the nation. Both the PAC and the Big Ten got 7 teams into the tournament, but only one Big Ten squad (OSU) didn't reach the sweet sixteen. Also, there are two Big Ten squads in the final four, and none of the "traditional" PAC powers (Stanford, UCLA, Cal, USC) made the semis this year. It's a very interesting dynamic, because back when we won our first NCAA title, no one thought that volleyball east of the Rockies was worth its weight in salt.
CG: Student support is really high when the match is at home (as I said above, Rec Hall regularly sells out and is quite opposing to the visiting team), but not as much when away. I expect the match will be broadcast in the HUB (the student union building), and, if the Nittany Lions make the finals on Saturday, it will likely be broadcast in the Bryce Jordan Center following the mens' basketball game, much like the NCAA women's soccer final was. You can bet, though, that thousands of tvs both on and off-campus will be tuned into the match.