Dec. 11, 2009

Notebook: Heavy Hitters Collide On Saturday

By Paul D. Bowker
Special to

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Penn State’s 99th consecutive win Friday sent the top-ranked and top-seeded Nittany Lions to the NCAA Division I Women‘s Volleyball Regional Finals against California. And a dominating performance it was.
Big Ten Player of the Year Megan Hodge had a game-high 20 kills as Penn State, playing in Gainesville for the first time since a loss in the 2003 Regional Final, defeated the Gators in three straight games, 25-12, 25-18, 25-21.
Penn State (35-0) will face California (21-10) at 4 p.m. ET Saturday (ESPNU). Cal beat Baylor in three games in the first semifinal. The winner will advance to next weekend’s Final Four at Tampa.
After watching her team lose in front of more than 3,400 at the O’Connell Center, Florida coach Mary Wise quickly blew praise on a team that is attempting a three-peat national title, which would be the first in NCAA Division I women‘s volleyball history. Wise said this is the best team to ever play in the O’Connell Center.
“If you don‘t play them, you have to sit back and admire how talented they are. What a great ball control team this is,” Wise said.
Beyond Hodge‘s kills and a game-high 45 assists by senior setter Alisha Glass, the Lions destroyed the Gators not only with speed and powerful kills, but aggressively chasing balls even onto the scorers‘ table to save volleys. In one volley, three Penn State players saved the ball leaping off the playing court.
The Lions started out strongly with a 25-12 win in the first game and rolled from there, although Florida gave a tough battle in the third set, the match finally ending when an attempted dig by Lauren Bledsoe bounced into the stands.  
“I thought we played well in all aspects of the game, except hitting the right service targets,” said Penn State coach Russ Rose, an 11-time Big Ten Coach of the Year who is just two wins shy of his 1,000th career victory.
Indeed, many of Penn State’s serves wound up on the hands of Florida libero Elyse Cusack (in fact, 28 times). And that seemed to be the only PSU mistake on a night when the Lions advanced to their fourth consecutive Regional Final. After a quick 1-0 lead by Florida in the first game, they never trailed again in the opening set. Hodge, Blair Brown and Arielle Wilson combined for 17 kills in that set alone. They converted 52.9 percent of their attacks.
“We came out with a lot of energy in the first game,” said Brown, who finished with 11 kills and two blocks. “It’s always good to start the game at a level you can continue with throughout the match and I think we need to work on that for tomorrow (Saturday).”
Penn State never trailed in the second set and only briefly in the third set. The Nittany Lions have not lost any sets in three NCAA Tournament matches.
And it’s not as if Florida played poorly. The Gators extended volleys to six or seven hits, at times.
“We’d go in for the dig, but there were so many great swings that we couldn’t reach,” said Gators outside hitter Colleen Ward.
Kristy Jaeckel led the Gators with nine kills. Kelly Murphy had 26 assists.
“We played hard. We went out there and left everything on the court that we could,” said Cusack, who became the Southeastern Conference’s all-time dig leader with 2,138, passing Ashley Miller of Arkansas (2,126). “They’re a great ball-control team and we couldn’t really match that tonight.”
“I’m really proud of this group and how hard we competed,” Wise said.
The Lions made quick work of the Gators early, finishing off the first two sets in less than an hour. Hodge had 11 kills in the first two sets and Brown had seven.
Florida went up by two points in the third set before an 8-1 run by Penn State put the Lions comfortably ahead, 15-10, and silenced a once noisy crowd.
“I just think we were a little crazy,” Hodge said. “Missed communication.”
During Penn State’s 8-1 run, Hodge had two kills. The only Florida point came on an attempted Hodge kill that was hit long.