Old school vs. new school
National semifinals feature storied history, upstart programs
When the NCAA Division I Women's Volleyball Championship descends on Louisville on Thursday, it will feature a pair of matchups between perennial powers and first-time semifinalists.
Third-seeded Texas tangles with Michigan in the first semifinal at the KFC Yum! Center at 7 p.m. ET, pitting the storied tradition of the Longhorns against the upstart Wolverines.
Texas is making its fourth NCAA semifinal appearance in the last five years and eighth trip overall. The Longhorns took home their lone title in 1988, but have failed to reach the pinnacle in their last four semifinal appearances. In 2009, the Longhorns advanced to the championship game, but fell to Penn State in five sets.
The Longhorns enter the weekend ranked first in the nation with a .322 hitting percentage, and are eighth in blocks per set with 3.00. Junior outside hitter Bailey Webster is on fire in the postseason, hitting .519 with 4.92 kills per set, while sophomore Haley Eckerman has posted a .333 hitting percentage with 3.46 kills per set during the Longhorns' NCAA run. On the season, Eckerman ranks 13th in the nation with 5.08 points per set and 15th with 4.45 kills per set.
"Our offensive systems are very good efficiency-wise," Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott said. "Defensively, we are making good touches and we are finding good quality swings. More importantly, I feel an aura around the team. Our team has been good in the crunch all year long. I'm comfortable going into battle with this group."
Texas has won 21 of its past 22 matches with the only setback being a five-set loss to No. 18 Iowa State to conclude the regular season. All three of their other losses were to ranked foes from the Big Ten Conference -- Penn State, Minnesota and Illinois.
"They are playing confident right now," Elliott said. "I feel like we have a legitimate shot to win on Thursday night and a shot to win this entire thing."
But as confident as the Longhorns are, they will have to face another pesky Big Ten squad -- Michigan -- which Elliott admits is a little scary.
"Even though they weren't ranked, [Michigan] was one of the hottest teams coming into the tournament," Elliott said. "After they came [to Louisville] and won in five against Tennessee, they have been playing relaxed and are playing well."
Michigan upset No. 2 seeded Stanford in the regional final last Saturday to earn the program's first trip to the NCAA semifinals under the tutelage of 14-year head coach Mark Rosen.
"The thing we noticed [against Stanford] was how relaxed and how much fun Michigan is having," Elliott said. "They got into a really good rhythm against Stanford. I felt like they were one step ahead of them the entire time."
Two weeks ago, the unseeded Wolverines, who tied for sixth place in the Big Ten standings, tripped up Tennessee and upended No. 10 Louisville on the Cardinals' home court. Michigan headed to the Berkeley Regional and swept in-state rival Michigan State and then surprised Stanford, building the squad's confidence heading into the semifinals.
"Right after the Stanford win last week, we immediately got to the locker room and said, 'We're not done,'" Michigan senior Claire McElheney said. "We accomplished one of our goals, but we're not done. We're here to win two games just like the rest of the teams."
Michigan has won five consecutive matches against top-15 opponents, and has won 11 of its past 13 contests. But it may have been a five-set loss to Penn State on Oct. 20 that helped the Wolverines realize they can play with anyone.
"We learned when we played [Penn State] that we can hang with any team," Michigan junior outside hitter Lexi Erwin said. "It doesn't matter what their rankings are."
In the second semifinal at 9 p.m. ET Thursday, No. 1 Penn State will meet fifth-seeded Oregon in a much-anticipated matchup.
The Nittany Lions are playing in the NCAA semifinals for the fifth time in six years after missing last year's semifinal round, which ended an incredible run of four consecutive national championships between 2007-10. Head coach Russ Rose has led Penn State to the semifinals 10 times, and taken home five titles during his 34-year career.
Penn State ranks third in the nation with a .307 hitting percentage led by junior middle hitter Katie Slay, who boasts a .421 hitting percentage for seventh in Division I. Sophomore setter Micha Hancock is one of the top servers in the nation, and set the NCAA championship record for aces in tournament play against Minnesota. She has 22 aces in four matches, surpassing the previous mark held by Long Beach State's Misty May. May posted 20 aces in the 1998 tournament.
The Nittany Lions have only lost two matches -- both in five sets -- to Oregon State and Nebraska, and enter the weekend on a 12-match winning streak.
"I think in the early part of the season we were experimenting in a variety of ways with different players in different positions," Rose said. "The Big Ten is such a demanding conference that you have to get yourself organized before you get into it. We had a stretch of five weekends, and four of them were on the road. That is an incredibly tough task. That may have been the key part of the season where the players started to believe they could play a high level. In our conference you are playing top-20 teams every weekend and if you are playing them on the road on football weekends there are big crowds. It is intense."
Penn State also has some experience against Oregon as the two programs met to open the 2011 season in State College. The then-unranked Ducks nabbed a 3-1 victory, ending Penn State's NCAA-record 94-match home winning streak.
"What I do remember of Oregon is that they have terrific talent," Rose said. "The setter is a very talented player, who has a lot of confidence. They also have three or four players who take big swings. They have a very fast system that most teams are not familiar with. We are not familiar with it and I don't think we can replicate it in practice."
Oregon head coach Jim Moore said that although the win against Penn State helped put the volleyball program on the map, the victory has no bearing on Thursday's match. "It did a lot for this program," Moore said. "It sort of let [the Oregon players] know that they were good. It was special. That was a great environment to go into at Penn State and to go in a year ago and do that. However, it has absolutely zero correlation to what's going to go on. It is two years removed [from that match]."
While the Ducks lead the nation with 15.97 kills and 14.91 assists per set, and rank ninth with a .296 hitting percentage, Moore knows Penn State's physical nature can take them out of their game.
"They can just do things that if we don't apply pressure and we don't do some things to get them out of system; if we don't serve tough and we don't do the stuff we're supposed to do…we have zero chance," Moore said. "I shouldn't say that. It will make it a lot more difficult."
Oregon is riding a seven-match winning streak into the weekend after defeating No. 4 seed Nebraska, 3-1, in the Omaha Regional to land the program's first NCAA semifinal berth.
"I said very early in the year that anybody who thinks they're going to a win a national championship has to go through Penn State."