Dec. 10, 2009

By Paul D. Bowker
Special to

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The talk of the town is Penn State‘s NCAA-record 98-game winning streak in women‘s volleyball which has included back-to-back national championships.
Except, of course, in the Penn State locker room.
“People talk about the streak. It’s not something we talk about,“ said senior setter Alisha Glass, whose 11.94 assists per set (1,278 total) ranks sixth nationally.
“We don’t talk about the streak and it isn‘t something we focus on,” said senior outside hitter Megan Hodge, the nation’s leading point-scorer and Big Ten Player of the Year.
The Nittany Lions (34-0, Big Ten champs) will put that streak on the line Friday in a Division I regional semifinal against Florida (25-5, SEC East runner-up). Penn State is the 64-team tournament’s top seed. Their win streak dates back more than two years, to Sept. 15, 2007, when Penn State lost the title game of the Yale Classic to Stanford.
They have not one, but two candidates for National Player of the Year honors, says Florida coach Mary Wise, whose team is hosting this regional: Hodge, a soon-to be four-time All-American, and Glass, whom Wise refers to as the Lions‘ quarterback. Both have won 138 of 143 matches in their college career.
“No one else has ever been in their position, to win three national titles. … When you get that good of a quarterback (Glass) and that good of a running back (Hodge) on the same team, then you have a BCS-caliber team,” said Wise, pulling out her best football references.
At 6 p.m. ET Friday, the Gators get a shot at Penn State on their home floor when they host the Nittany Lions at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. The winner will meet California (20-10) or Baylor (24-9) in the regional title game at 4 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU). Baylor and Cal will meet in Friday’s first semifinal at 3:30.
This regional is a mix of the favorite (Penn State), the underdog (Baylor, which knocked off ninth-ranked UCLA last week), the winningest program since 1991 (Florida, with 603 victories) and the explosive (California, riding the offensive attacks of the Pac-10 Player of the Year, senior hitter Hana Cutura of Zagreb, Crotia).
Without question, the rest of the field is looking up at Penn State, which Wise says has a number of women who could wind up on the next USA Olympics team in 2012. In fact, Hodge and Glass trained with the national team this past summer.
“They’re a dominant team, and they’ve made history,” said Baylor coach Jim Barnes. “Coach (Russ) Rose there has done an amazing job with that program.”
Thirteen of Penn State’s last 14 matches have come in three consecutive match wins. The only school to push the Nittany Lions in that stretch was Purdue, which squeaked out a 31-29 win before losing in three straight sets.
Hodge has been a star virtually since stepping on the court as a freshman in 2006, following her National High School Player of the Year senior year at Durham (N.C.) Riverside. Hodge was Big Ten Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year her first season, and this year her 493 kills, including 25 vs. Michigan, has pushed her career total to 2,075, second best in school history. Glass has 5,625 career assists, including 1,278 this year.
“Easily one of the best setters in the country,” Wise said.
So, clearly with a target on their backs, can the Nittany Lions be defeated?
“To me, I just see opportunity …,” Baylor coach Jim Barnes said. “It’s an opportunity to take your program into another level and bring a lot of notoriety to it if you knock off Penn State. I think our team relishes this moment.”
For Cal, this is the second consecutive year the Bears have wound up in the same regional as the tournament’s top seed. They lost to Penn State in last year’s regional final at State College, Pa.
“I wouldn’t describe it as exciting. Challenging? Absolutely,” Cal coach Rich Feller said. “Am I happy that we are in Gainesville as opposed to anywhere else? Yes.”
Florida, which defeated Penn State the last time it faced them in Gainesville, in the 2003 NCAA Regional Final, will attack the Nittany Lions with a young starting lineup which includes sophomore setter Kelly Murphy, who has an NCAA-leading nine triple-doubles. The Gators have won five straight since consecutive losses to LSU and Tennessee in November.  
“Florida has a great program, and it‘s a match where we will have to play well” said Rose, who is just three wins short of his 1,000th career victory.
In the other semifinal, Baylor (24-9), one of five Big 12 teams in the NCAA Regionals this weekend (four other conference teams are in Omaha, Neb. Regional), faces the task of trying to stop one of the nation‘s top outside hitters, 6-foot-4 Hana Cutura. Her 1,970 career kills is a school record and the Pac-10 Player of the Year had 20 kills in Cal‘s NCAA-opening win over Atlantic Sun champ Lipscomb. Cal is 20-10.
But Baylor coach Barnes is convinced Cutura can‘t beat his team by herself. He is worried about the Golden Bears‘ other stars, including senior middle hitter Mindi Wiley, sophomore outside hitter Tarah Murrey and junior setter Carli Lloyd, each of them All-Pac-10 selections for a team that is ranked 10th nationally.
“She’s going to see a lot of balls; there’s nothing we can do about that. … She‘s going to get her kills” Barnes said. “She could get 30 kills, and we could still win. Like their coach said, this is not a one-woman team. Their other players can really play so it’s important we keep them under control.”
Baylor is coming off perhaps the biggest volleyball win in school history, a 25-23, 25-22, 29-31, 25-19 win over ninth-ranked UCLA which put Baylor in the NCAA Regionals for the first time.
“They have an experienced group of seniors and upper-class players that can bring it, than can terminate when they need to terminate,” Feller said.

While Cal’s offense is explosive, Feller said his team is playing well defensively, also. Lloyd had seven blocks in Cal’s second-round win over Ohio State, and Wiley averages 1.04 blocks per set.
“Lots of people tend to think of Hana (Cutura) as being the offensive powerhouse and that’s all we have,” Feller said. “When they play us, teams find out that we are pretty good defensively and transitionally.”