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:
To see the answers I gave to Black Shoe Diaries' Cari Greene about the Ducks' magical season, here's their Q+A. You can also follow their volleyball writer at @NotCarlotta.
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: Most expected this year to be improved, but I for one didn't expect us to be this improved. When we beat Stanford in five and swept Texas in straights in the third weekend of the season, though, I let myself hope that this team was going to go much further than last year's squad.
Last year, we had a true freshman setter and a trio of sophomore hitters that were the backbone of our squad. We were very young, and that led to the relatively early exit in the tourney. It also gained everyone valuable experience, though, which helps not only this year, but next as well--there are only two seniors on the squad in 2012, and neither start (senior Kristin Carpenter, who was the starting setter on our last national championship squad in 2010, is now a key backup). This year will only build up to next year, which should be even better.
WR: Looking at this year's team, who are the players that Oregon fans should pay the most attention to?
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.
We also have the Big Ten player of the year on our squad in Ariel Scott, who I'd put up against any hitter in the country--she takes some wicked angles, and very rarely makes errors when she's set. We also have 2010's B1G frosh of the year Deja McClendon, who's taken a backseat to Scott this year but has picked up her defense, and Katie Slay, who's primarily used for blocking but has one of the best hitting percentages in the conference in her limited hits. Basically, if our opponents stop one offensive weapon, we have multiple others to go to.
WR: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Penn State team this season?
CG: Our most glaring weakness this year is serving. We're very streaky and tend to "go for it" all the time--even when we're down or in a tight set. This can breed a lot of aces (like in our first round against Binghampton, Hancock's jump serve netted 21 straight points in the second set, which we went on to win 25-3), but it can also lead to a lot of unnecessary errors, which is incredibly frustrating. Penn State has had a history of tough servers, but in the past, these servers had "safe" serves they could use in tough situations--this team doesn't seem to have that. It's pretty scary as a fan when watching.
I think our biggest strength is our depth. As I stated above, we have multiple offensive weapons, so opponents can't key on just one player to stop the team from scoring. We have a deep pool of talent, even on the bench, as Coach Rose never uses favoritism or years in the program to determine who plays; every year, there's at least one senior or junior who used to start that's relegated to the bench because of a more talented underclassman coming in.
The success of our program, not just at the collegiate level but having two players play on the US National Team and two more on the bench for the National Team, means that players are willing to come to the Nittany Lion program from all over the country just to compete for a spot on the court. We don't substitute a lot, but we have the players available if the ones on court just aren't getting it done--which, fortunately, hasn't happened much this year.
WR: What is the perception of Pac-12 volleyball in the Big 10, which is generally considered the other elite volleyball conference?
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.
The PAC 12 is a great volleyball conference, no doubt about it, and it will continue to be, because of the coaching and talent it attracts. It's going to be interesting to see how the two conferences jockey for top spots and recruits going forward, now that there's more Big Ten programs cementing their status on the court (like Minnesota, who landed US Mens and Womens National Team coach Hugh McCutcheon as their coach, or Michigan) alongside Penn State and Nebraska.
WR: How is the student support at home volleyball matches, and is there anything planned on campus for the match?
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.