Last year's title match foes face off
Kristen Leigh Porter, Special to NCAA.com
KANSAS CITY, Mo. - One year after becoming the first Division I women's volleyball team to win three consecutive NCAA titles, Penn State is back in the semifinals. But during an open practice Wednesday afternoon at the Sprint Center, it was difficult for the casual fan to figure that out based on an official roster.
Not ones to break with tradition, the Nittany Lions sported different digits than usual on their shirts.
"The first time we came to final four we did that," libero Alyssa D'Errico explained. "Ever since then it's been fun for us to do, and we get a kick out of it."
The fourth-seeded Nittany Lions (30-5) face a familiar foe in ninth-seeded Texas (27-5) Thursday at 7 p.m. ET in the semifinals with an opportunity to become the first program to reach four consecutive title matches. Sixth-seeded USC (29-4) plays seventh-seeded California (29-3), with the winners advancing to Saturday's 8:30 ET final.
"This is what you play for," said Big Ten Conference Player of the Year Blair Brown, an opposite who along with D'Errico and middle hitter Arielle Wilson comprises a senior trio that boasts a 139-6 career record at Penn State. "This is what you work hard for early in the season and preseason is to get to this point. And right now, we're just concentrating on finishing the season out in the way that we would like to."
The semifinal match-up will have a different look than the Nittany Lions' 22-25, 20-25, 25-23, 25-21, 15-13 comeback win over the Longhorns in last year's final at the St. Pete Times Forum. All-tournament selections from the 2009 title match who won't be on the court Thursday include Penn State superstars Megan Hodge and Alisha Glass and Texas standouts Ashley Engle and Destinee Hooker.
"I think we've got six or seven different starters out there compared to a year ago with a lack of experience on both sides and ultimately, a different style of play than we had a year ago, on both sides," Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said.
Early on, neither team looked like a sure thing to make a repeat appearance.
Texas -- returning 54 percent of its kills, 33 percent of its assists and 39 percent of its digs from last season -- started 8-5. But after losing to Nebraska on Oct. 2, the Longhorns won 19 consecutive matches with Big 12 Conference Player of the Year Juliann Faucette averaging 4.50 kills and 2.74 digs per set during the streak.
That helped the Longhorns earn their third-straight Finals appearance. (In addition to last year's five-set loss, Texas also led Nebraska by two sets in the 2008 semifinals before losing the last three sets and the match.)
"...Losing both those games the last two years were hard, but we've always learned something from that," Faucette, a senior outside hitter, said. "On top of that, the adversity that we experienced this year made us have to make a decision: We could either make this year mediocre or we could come together and set the goals we have always set for this program and continue to work for them."
After losing freshman setter Hannah Allison to injury in mid-October, junior Michelle Kocher stepped back into the starting role. Both are available now to set up a potent Texas attack that claims the nation's fourth-highest team hitting percentage. Longhorns junior middle hitter Rachael Adams ranks tops nationally with a .448 hitting percentage, followed by senior middle hitter Jennifer Doris at .435.
"This team has come a long way and we may be the hottest team coming in, but we still see ourselves as the underdogs," Adams said.
The Nittany Lions, whose historic 109-match winning streak was snapped earlier this season, started their conference campaign 3-3. Penn State ended up winning 17 of its next 18 matches and dropped just one set in postseason play.
Although they lost 2009 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Darcy Dorton to an ACL injury in the offseason, Penn State sophomore setter Kristin Carpenter has plenty of options. Brown leads the team with 4.20 kills per set, followed by freshman Deja McClendon (3.37) and Wilson (2.7).
"We don't really talk about history," said legendary Nittany Lions coach Russ Rose, who has the highest winning percentage (.863) and ranks third in career wins (1,031) among active coaches. "I think people write books about that sort of thing. Your numbers might be lofty but people have a way of getting out there and breaking all the records that are established so I'm not thinking along those lines."
Both programs have long enjoyed postseason success. Texas became the first school located east of California to win an NCAA title back in 1988. Penn State has appeared in all 30 NCAA Tournaments.
While Penn State is tied for fourth in all-time NCAA Tournament records with 60 wins and ranks third in tourney winning percentage (.863). Texas is tied for sixth with 62 wins and its .713 winning percentage ranks eighth overall. Penn State and Texas are also the only schools to reach the NCAA Regional finals in each of the last five years.
Said Penn State's Wilson: "In high school, I didn't picture being in the Final Four, so it definitely gets more exciting as the years go on. The first year was a shock and ever since then it's been incredible."