Kristen Leigh Porter, NCAA.com
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Rich Feller took over the California women’s volleyball program in 1999, the Golden Bears had endured seven consecutive sub-.500 seasons. Now Cal is one of just three programs to have advanced at least as far as the NCAA regional championship match each of the last four years, culminating with a berth in Saturday’s 8:30 p.m. ET national final at the Sprint Center.
Feller’s seventh-seeded Golden Bears (30-3) will face three-time defending champion and fourth-seeded Penn State (31-5), one of the nation’s elite programs that kept his from possibly reaching even greater heights in recent years. Penn State ended Cal’s season in the 2009 Gainesville Regional final, the 2008 University Park Regional final and 2007 national semifinal.
In building a national contender in Berkeley, Feller said Cal first had to find recruits that athletically could at least see eye-to-eye over the net with the likes of Pac-10 Conference powers USC, UCLA and Stanford. Soon top athletes, including current standouts such as senior All-American setter Carli Lloyd (1,351 assists, 284 digs) and junior All-American outside hitter Tarah Murrey (601 kills, 278 digs), wanted to be Golden Bears.
“Certainly it’s rewarding for me to look back on 12 years of hard work and now be in a position to win a national championship with this group here,” said Feller, the 2010 AVCA National Coach of the Year. “They will leave a legacy as their predecessors have that Cal is one of the top collegiate volleyball programs in the country. Maybe this year we can say we are the top.”
Feller, whose mother, Bernice, was an undergrad and father, David, earned a Ph.D. at Cal, grew up watching Stanford and Cal play each other. This season, his Golden Bears beat the Cardinal twice in the same season for the first time since 1979 en route to winning the program’s first Pac-10 title. Cal earned a school-record ninth consecutive appearance in the NCAA championship tournament, and a program-best fifth-consecutive 20-win season.
“I wanted to be part of an up-and-coming program,” Lloyd said. “My uncle (Galen Tomlinson, the former ‘Turbo’ of American Gladiator fame) and I talked about it and I wanted to be a part of the first national championship that Cal would get.”
Said Murrey: “We’re ready to win a title. I think that if we just focus on our side of the court, have fun and play for each other, that it will be a very successful night for us.”
Saturday’s opposing coach is no stranger to national or conference success in his 32nd year. Penn State’s Russ Rose is one of the most recognizable faces in the sport, and has led the Nittany Lions to 71 victories in NCAA Tournament action, fourth-best all-time. Penn State advanced to the Final for the eighth time in school history, and is the only program in Division I history to reach the championship match four consecutive years.
Senior All-American and Big Ten Player of the Year Blair Brown (503 kills, 271 digs) and senior All-American Arielle Wilson (322 kills) are among returnees for the Nittany Lions, who added the AVCA Freshman of the Year in Deja McClendon (402 kills, 226 digs).
“We’re a new team this year, but there are upperclassmen that have played (Cal) the last three years,” Penn State defensive specialist Cathy Quilico said. “At the same time, (Saturday is) a whole new match.”
The Nittany Lions, winners of eight consecutive Big Ten Conference titles, have won 18 of their past 19 matches. Penn State went undefeated the past two seasons, and lost just two matches in 2007.
“We both have earned the right to be here,” Feller said, noting that this year’s Penn State team lost to Minnesota in five sets in its regular-season finale, while Cal swept the Golden Gophers in the Seattle Regional semifinal. “You can’t really compare them like that, but I think that helps us with some of our confidence. We know that that team is not unbeatable.”