Dec. 12, 2009

Sidebar: 100 And Counting -- Penn State's Streak Hits A Milestone

By Paul D. Bowker
Special to
Minutes after Blair Brown's powerful 13th kill Saturday secured Penn State`s third consecutive trip to the Division I Women`s Volleyball Final Four, a cross-court celebration began with their fans.
"We are!" the Nittany Lions shouted.
"Penn State!" their large contingent of fans screamed from the other side of the court.
Next stop for the two-time defending NCAA champs, whose win streak now stands at 100: The Final Four next weekend in Tampa, which is only a handful of Megan Hodge spikes from here, or precisely, 131 miles from the University of Florida`s O`Connell Center, where the Nittany Lions swept past California on Saturday and Florida on Friday without losing a set in the Regional semifinals and final.
The top-seeded Nittany Lions (36-0) will meet No. 12 Hawaii or No. 13 Michigan in the national semfinals Thursday night at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. The championship game is Saturday, Dec. 19.
Hodge, a senior outside hitter who was selected the Most Outstanding Player at the Gainesville Regional and is a National Player of the Year candidate, had 14 kills in a 25-18, 25-17, 25-22 win over Cal. Combined with Brown's 13 kills and Alyssa D'Errico's career-high five service aces, the Nittany Lions unleashed an offense that Cal just could not match, sending the Bears home for the third consecutive year. Last year, Cal lost to Penn State in a regional final at Penn State; in 2007, Cal lost to Penn State in the national semifinals.
"I feel bad going up against Cal every year," Penn State coach Russ Rose said.
No problem, hinted Cal junior setter Carli Lloyd. "If we meet them again next year, I'm down to battle them," she said.
Clearly, the regional final was a battle even though Penn State won in three consecutive games. Cal had a lead of at least two points in every game. Senior outside hitter Hana Cutura, likely headed for a professional career and possibly into the 2012 Olympics with the Croatian national team, hit a game-high 16 kills with a powerful slam that Rose calls the hardest in college volleyball.
"We played well. We gave them a good fight," Cutura said. "I'm proud of my team."
"It's hard to be happy (about) a game like that," Lloyd said. "Penn State is an amazing team."
The Nittany Lions doubled two players on the net in an attempt to slow Cutura, who had seven kills in the second game alone.
"You want to play in front of her," Rose said.
"They're really tall," Cutura said. "I kept trying to hit around their blocks," Cutura said. "Sometimes it was hard to see where they were going to jump out from."
Ultimately, Penn State's balanced offensive attack and Hodge's athleticism, combined with effective serving (eight service aces to Cal's two) carried the Nittany Lions to victory. That was never more obvious than in the first game, when Penn State's Alyssa D'Errico hit three service aces in a 6-0 run that turned a one-point deficit into a five-point lead for the Lions.
"They`re a very good serving team. I think it`s one of the things that goes unnoticed," Cal coach Rich Feller said.
From there, the Lions cruised to a 25-18 win in the first game, then overcame a three-point deficit and more offensive set-ups for Cutura in the second game to win, 25-17. Cal really gave Penn State a battle in the third game. A 3-0 run by Cal tied the game at 20-20, but two consecutive points, including one on a kill by Brown, put the Lions back on top. They finished the job on a service ace by D'Errico and another kill by Brown.
"We felt great, relieved, to get a victory," Rose said. "They're a dangerous team. ... They play hard all the time."
After Brown`s game-ending kill, all that was left was the Nittany Lions' celebration with their fans.
"Our fans are incredible," said Arielle Wilson. "They came to Florida and (go) wherever we`re playing. It`s amazing."