Dec. 11, 2009

By Paul D. Bowker
Special to

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In the opening minutes of Friday‘s NCAA Division I Women‘s Volleyball Regional match against Baylor, 6-foot-4 Hana Cutura leaped up at the net and swung her right arm at the ball.
Wham. The ball hit the floor before two Baylor defenders could even react. It was just one of 18 kills in a 3-0 match win that sent the Golden Bears (21-10) and Cutura, the Pac-10 Player of the Year, to Saturdays’ Regional Final against two-time national champ Penn State at the University of Florida‘s O‘Connell Center.
You won‘t have to remind Penn State Coach Russ Rose about Cutura, of Zagreb, Croatia. He knows how good she is.
“Hardest hitter I‘ve seen in college volleyball, that‘s for sure,” Rose said.
And remember, Rose coaches two-time Big Ten Player of the Year Megan Hodge, an outside hitter who had 20 kills in a straight-sets regional semifinal win Friday over Florida, and Darcy Dorton, an outside hitter who was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
Thursday, perhaps in anticipation of the meeting with Cutura, the Nittany Lions spent much of their practice working on digs.
Saturday‘s final matches up one of the nation‘s best outside hitters against a team that hasn‘t lost a match since September, 2007.
“That should be a great match,” Florida coach Mary Wise said. “I‘ll sit back and just watch.”
Saturday‘s match will mark the third consecutive year that Cal has met Penn State in the NCAAs. Last year the Golden Bears lost to Penn State in a regional final played at Penn State. In 2007, Cal lost to Penn State in the national semifinals. For senior starters Cutura and Mindi Wiley, it‘ll be their last shot at the Lions.
“They are very good,” Rose said.
The battle along the net should be classic. Cutura averages 5.12 kills per set, and had a career-high 33 kills in a win over Washington this year. Her 1,988 career kills are a school record. Hodge, who trained with the USA national team this past summer, averages 4.70 kills per set and her 2,095 career kills rank No. 2 in school history, behind Loro Barberich‘s 2,282 (1981-84).
Wise, for one, is glad she won‘t have to coach against Hodge again.
“Next time, she‘ll be on the national team and I‘ll be saying, ‘Go USA!’ “ Wise said, laughing.
STREAKING: Penn State’s win streak stands at 99, but Penn State coach Russ Rose says the Nittany Lions do not talk about it and that he wasn’t even sure where the number stood.
“We’re not looking at the streak,“ he said. “In the NCAA Tournament, you need to win the next game or you’re celebrating Hannukah.“
The Lions have not lost since the championship match of the Yale Classic on Sept. 15, 2007, when they lost to Stanford.
SEC LEADER: Florida senior libero Elysa Cusack broke the Southeastern Conference‘s record for all-time digs, by totaling 15 against Penn State. Her career total is 2,138, topping former Arkansas star Ashley Miller, who had 2,126.
“I‘ve had a great run here, a great four years,” she said. “If you work hard every day in practice and in training, it’s going to pay off.”
EMOTIONAL FINISH: Baylor senior setter Taylor Barnes finished her college career with a team-high 34 assists in the Bears’ loss to Cal. Barnes holds two school records: assists (5,210) and service aces (205).
“I think this has been the best four years of my life,” Barnes said.
TIME TROUBLES: Florida Coach Mary Wise said she was happy with Friday’s attendance of 3,405 at the O’Connell Center despite the “ridiculous” times of these matches.”
The regional semifinal games were held at 3:30 and 6 p.m. Friday. UF was hoping to hold the games at 4:30 and 7 so that more Gator fans, working during the day, would be able to get to the arena in time for the evening match between Florida and Penn State.
The Gators drew more than 3,800 fans twice during the regular season.