The 2008 Penn State women’s volleyball team was perhaps the most dominant NCAA team of any sport in a generation.
The Nittany Lions ran through every team on their schedule, setting records with 3-0 win after 3-0 win.
Then they nearly blew it in a national semifinal game that was so tense that Nicole Fawcett’s face nearly went numb and Karch Kiraly, the U.S. women’s indoor national team head coach and broadcaster, still gets chills when talking about it.
“It's the David-Goliath moment that people really enjoy seeing the Davids,” said Fawcett, the 2008 national player of the year. “We were pushing ourselves to ensure we weren't going to be that Goliath.”
Of all those Penn State teams during the four straight national championships from 2007 to 2010 that put together an NCAA record 109-game winning streak, the 2008 Nittany Lions might have the longest lasting legacy 10 years to the day of their national championship.
There hasn’t been an undefeated champion in Division I women’s volleyball since the 2009 Penn State team, let alone a team that didn’t lose a set until the national semifinals.
But that type of unprecedented run was never on the minds of the players. They didn’t feel like they were constantly winning despite the 3-0 results.
At times, it was a perfect team in crisis, growing frustrated with the lack of solutions to what they all believed were mistakes they had to fix to win a championship. The players on that 2008 team said, in order to win, they believed they always had to do more.
In the end, that’s what made them great.
Russ Rose prepared them for anything
Fawcett knew entering the 2008 season that Penn State had a chance to reach new heights unfounded by prior teams.
Megan Hodge, Christa Harmotto, Alisha Glass and Fawcett were back from the 2007 championship team. The former three would play in the Olympics; Fawcett has played numerous years for Team USA and won a world championship. Three-time All-Americans Blair Brown and Arielle Wilson also returned.
Looking at the stats of that season, you would think Penn State knew it was better than everyone. The team hit .390 for the season. Harmotto, Hodge, Fawcett, Brown and Wilson each had at least 200 kills and hit better than .340.
Russ Rose — a coaching legend who is as much a staple of college volleyball as is his program — made them believe there was always a team better than they were. The members of that 2008 team said Rose’s persistent demand for not just excellence, but also that his players give more than they thought was possible is what built Penn State into one of the sport’s titans.
“I think what coach does so well is that he has a level of honesty and you always know where you stand with him,” said Brown, a junior opposite hitter in 2008. “And that was something that was so comforting to a lot of the players.”
It wasn’t just Rose. Harmotto, Fawcett and senior libero Roberta Holehouse were a passionate group of leaders that had the same level of expectation as their coach. And albeit they were a major reason for the history the 2008 team set, the contributions could come from any player at any time.
“It was kind of like a perfect storm there with coach being coach and just some of that leadership we had,” Brown (now Brown Lipsitz) said.
The national expectation for the Nittany Lions was cemented from the first games of the season, with wins against No. 12 Hawaii and No. 6 UCLA in Honolulu. As they continued to roll over teams 3-0, they approached their best test since that opening weekend on Oct. 11 at No. 12 Minnesota. The result: a sweep. 25-18, 25-15, 25-12.
“Honestly, I just remember everyone joking that we were going to time the game and just see how fast we could beat people 3-0,” said Wilson, a sophomore middle that season. “It wasn't necessarily a cocky thing but knowing we were pretty good and worked hard every single day."
The streak of 3-0 wins became the story. The consensus was the team was destined for another championship. The major question in the media was whether or not Penn State would lose a set, not if they would win the championship.
"We were chasing something that people felt like we already had,” said Glass, the setter on the 2007, ‘08 and ‘09 championship teams.
But no one knew how to answer questions about the streak. They all believed there was a higher ceiling than the level they were playing at. Why they thought that had everything to do with the way Rose had them practice.
Rose would put up four blockers against his offense. He would add more players to the other side of the court on defense. He would put his offense down seven or eight points, demanding the group overcome that deficit before moving on to anything else.
"We didn't even realize what we were doing because, to be honest, we were getting our butts kicked every day in practice,” Harmotto said. “Physically and mentally, he pushes his athletes beyond what they could ever imagine. It's just beyond what you think you're even capable of."
This is just how Rose is. That demand Rose had is what Fawcett said made her into the player she became in college and on the international stage.
Brown, who is now a coach at Buffalo, said what was best about Rose is he knew when to push them and when to stop. He knew his players maybe better than they knew themselves.
The seniors were still able to carry the team over the top when they needed to because they weren’t going to leave Penn State without another championship.
Even during the 3-0 wins, Fawcett said there wasn’t a moment where she and Harmotto weren’t stressed. One title wasn’t good enough. All the 3-0 wins weren’t good enough. Anything but a title would’ve been a failure that fell on the seniors.
After sweeps against Northwestern and No. 21 Wisconsin in late October, Fawcett said her knees had basically quit. When the team got back to campus, the pain was so unbearable that she could hardly walk down the stairs to her bedroom. For the next two months she would work out with the trainer to ease the pain.
They were too far in at that point and had come too close to their goal for her to stop playing because of some pain, even if it felt serious. Fawcett would battle through the entire season without missing a set and continue to deliver in big moments.
The greatest match in volleyball history
After cruising through the first three games of the NCAA tournament, the team was as confident as ever approaching another national semifinal. No. 8 California, with current US national team setter Carli Lloyd, was next, which the Nittany Lions beat in the 2007 national semis.
Cal was the only team to have lost in the NCAA tournament to Penn State all four years during the Nittany Lions’ four straight championships. Had it not been for them, former Cal coach Rich Feller said his team might have won two championships.
Penn State’s path to the championship match included multiple future Olympians, but not once did the Nittany Lions fail to act like they didn’t belong — another staple of Rose’s program. "His team just has an attitude, for sure, of confidence,” Feller said. “He's always got them playing very relaxed.”
Now just two games away from that national championship after the sweep over Cal, Penn State’s next opponent was No. 4 Nebraska, a team that had battled injuries and almost didn’t have a setter to start the season. The Huskers had defied expectations to get there, said Huskers play-by-play radio host John Baylor, so Penn State was expected to do what it had been doing all year.
There was still one inescapable factor that predicted the Nittany Lions would be given their biggest challenge. The site of the national semifinals and championship was in Omaha.
"I just remember Megan Hodge looking at me and there's just this sea of red,” Brown said.
The first two sets started how every game had started. Then something changed. Future Olympian outside hitter Jordan Larson took over and the Huskers took a set from the Nittany Lions.
This was inevitable. Streaks end. And Rose made sure his team knew it throughout the year.
Glass remembered thinking “monkey off back,” she said. The streak is over. They still have to go out and play for a spot in the championship.
But it got tighter. Nebraska won another set and the Qwest Center was at a fever pitch. One more and this incredible Penn State team would fall short of its goal and possibly be forgotten by history.
U.S. women’s national team coach Karch Kiraly called that game for ESPN. Ten years later, it’s still fresh in his mind.
"I get chills every time I think about it,” he said.
Fawcett and Harmotto were shaken to the core. The championship game was within reach, yet they were 15 points away from going open empty-handed. This was the first instance that year where they had to really take the match.
“We were both quivering and shaking, like on the verge of tears,” Fawcett said. “I remember feeling like my lips were turning numb. I couldn't feel my tongue. That to me was such a scary moment and I remember it like it was yesterday."
Nebraska battled, point for point. Penn State couldn’t pull away. Down 9-8, Brown received a low set and hit it into the net followed by a thunderous roar that might still whisper through the Nebraska plains.
"I remember just being like, ‘What have I done?’” Brown said.
Rose called a timeout. He reminded them — though, maybe he didn’t have to — that they had been in that situation before. Not in a game, but every day in practice when he would put them down seven or eight point to have to battle back and win the set. All along, it was as if Rose knew there would be a crossroads and he was preparing his team for that moment all season.
“We just said, 'Hey, we do this all the time,’” Glass said.
Fawcett went back to the service line and famously didn’t do her standard jump serve. She stood there, feet glued to the floor as she swung to send the ball over the net, taking every precaution possible just to keep the ball in the court.
“I did not serve anywhere where they told me to go,” Fawcett said.
She served straight to Nebraska’s best defender, and future Olympian, libero Kayla Banwarth. Stunningly, Banwarth struggled to handle the serves and Penn State rattled off six in a row off of a backrow kill and an ace from Fawcett, a block from Wilson and Hodge, a Hodge kill and two Nebraska errors. They won the fifth set, 15-11.
Baylor, Nebraska’s broadcaster, said that game remains the best game he’s ever witnessed.
Thrilled with a victory, Harmotto and Fawcett were worn out from what they each called one of the toughest games they’ve ever played. Rose, however, wasn’t going to congratulate them on the game with one more to win.
He walked into the locker room after the match and told them they were out of shape.
That comment didn’t come from a place of disgust with the performance, rather some hidden truth. Having not played a five-set match all season, they weren’t accustomed to a match going that long, which was another reason Rose probably tested that team so much in practice.
“I think that was his point of just reeling us back in, that we still had work to be done,” Fawcett said.
Two days later, Penn State would have to show that endurance against No. 2 Stanford and four future Team USA members, including Foluke Akinradewo, who is still playing with the national team and was named 2018 USA Volleyball female co-indoor player of the year.
John Dunning, the legendary former Stanford coach who won three championships with the Cardinal, said he had "clearly one of the best teams that has every played women's college volleyball. They might've run the table a few times if not for Penn State."
This game wouldn’t need five sets. Penn State returned to form with a three-set victory to finish what it had set out to do.
At a championship banquet following the match, Fawcett said she and Harmotto looked at each other, knowing in the moment without saying a word that everything they went through had been worth it.
"That was it for us. We were also just really exhausted from a season that was what some people view as an easy season because of 3-0 (wins) — it was really mentally draining,” Fawcett said.
There has been just one team since 2008 to go undefeated through an entire season — the 2009 Penn State team — which still had Hodge, Glass, Brown and Wilson. So which one is the greatest?
Penn State has had countless great teams in Rose’s 40-year career with the program. But the consensus among the coaches and players is that the 2008 team just had something different about it.
"That was an amazing group of athletes and people to put together in a team to have a run that's unparalleled in our sport,” Dunning said.
It remains unparalleled for now. But could it happen again? Could a team really lose only two sets?
The Big Ten is stronger now than it was in 2008 and Dunning pointed to the best teams scheduling each other every year, making it all the more difficult.
But streaks are meant to be broken, Brown said — which is something they had to believe in during the championship run just to have this lasting legacy. It’s something that was as much a factor in their success as their belief that they were never good enough — until they were.