SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- The Division I Women's Volleyball Championship will look quite a bit different from the previous few seasons.

One reason is Penn State will not appear in the final weekend for the first time since 2006. Fear not, the four teams playing are ready to make their mark, some for the first time.

The first semifinal match pits UCLA (28-6), which has three titles to its credit (1984, 1990, 1991), against Florida State (28-6), making its first semifinal appearance in the 44-year history of the program.

The nightcap features Southern California (29-4), which also has won three times (1981, 2002, 2003) against Illinois (31-4), which has never won, but is back in the semifinals for the first time since making back-to-back appearances in 1987-88.

Both matchups are intriguing and promise two exhibitions of power volleyball. And for the first time, after a magnificent four-year-title run by Penn State, a new champion will be crowned on Saturday night in the Alamodome.

McRoberts lends interesting view

The pundits have started talking about the national semifinals. One who may have the best perspective is Tulsa head coach Steven McRoberts. McRoberts, you see, has faced three of the four semifinalists.
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“I think it’s going to be one of the best played [semifinals] and also one of the best-attended [semifinals],” USC head coach Mick Haley said, who has won three national titles. “We’re just pleased to be part of it.”

Pretty much all four teams feel the same way, although USC is the only team who made the semifinals last year and has championship round experience. What’s more, Haley, at USC since 2001, is the only coach who has been at his school more than three years.

“I think last year we came here with pretty wide eyes and not sure what to expect,” USC senior setter Kendall Bateman said, whose team got swept by California in the 2010 semifinals. “I think that experience has helped us a lot. We know how things go here.”

Third-year Florida State coach Chris Poole said: “This is just another match. Yes we’re on a big stage, but this is another match. Let’s go out and play the way we’re capable of playing and let the things fall where they will at the end.”

And third-year Illinois coach Kevin Hambly: “We deal with all the distractions and realize we’re just going to play a volleyball game. That’s all that’s going on. It’s not a national semifinal. It’s just a volleyball game against USC and we have to approach it that way. We’ve been in some big matches and we’ve had the same kind of approach. If we make it more than it is, being more than just a volleyball game, then we’ll be in trouble.”

UCLA, for example, is led by two big hitters, 6-3 senior Rachel Kidder (4.63 kills per set) and 6-5 junior Tabi Love (2.74 kills per set). But Love, a transfer from Minnesota, is the only Bruin who has semifinals experience.

USC’s Haley said his cross-town and Pac-12 rival was primed and ready heading into the tournament, and the Bruins got here by beating the aforementioned Penn State in the round of 16 and then top-seeded Texas.

“That looks like a shootout. I don’t know how to read Florida State yet,” Haley said. “I think they bring it, from what I was able to see. But I don’t know until they play UCLA. I know UCLA. I have to deal with them all the time. They’re good.

“Karch [Kiraly] asked me weeks ago the best team we played and I told him I thought the Bruins were the best team we played. That’s kind of holding up.”

Florida State, while not as well known to the West Coast contingent, is like the United Nations with players from New Zealand  (Rachel Morgan), Turkey (Duygu Duzceler and Fatma Yildrim), Brazil (Patricia Figueiredo), Latvia (Jekaterina Stepanova) and Serbia (Visnja Djurdjevic and Marija Milosavlievic).

The latter pair transferred from Tulane; Figueiredo and Stepanova from Missouri State, a junior college. Stepanova leads FSU with 410 kills, while Ashley Neff leads with 192 blocks and Sareea Freeman has 154.

It’s just a volleyball game against USC and we have to approach it that way. We’ve been in some big matches and we’ve had the same kind of approach. If we make it more than it is, being more than just a volleyball game, then we’ll be in trouble.
-- Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly

“They’re similar to Oregon as far as the type of offense they run, a lot of combinations, a lot of misdirection,” second-year UCLA coach Michael Sealy said of FSU. “That posed a challenge for us during the season. It’s not something we see that often. But we’re excited at getting another chance at battling that system.”

Illinois got through a late-season lull in which it went 4-4, including a 3-1 loss at Michigan State.

“That’s what happens in the Big Ten,” Hambly said. “The team needed to address some issues … I felt like we were going in the right direction.”

The Illini have won seven consecutive matches, including knocking off conference rival Ohio State in the round of 16 and then Florida in Gainesville to make it here. In that match, 6-2 senior Colleen Ward, a transfer from Florida, hit an almost unbelievable .500 with 23 kills on her old homecourt.

Fellow senior Michelle Bartsch, a 6-3 senior outside, leads the Illini with 513 kills (Ward has 496), while freshman middle Anna Dorn has a team-high 170 blocks and junior middle Erin Johnson 146.

“One of the good things about our team is we have so many people who can put the ball away,” Ward said.

The star of the show Thursday might be USC all-time kills leader Alex Jupiter, a 6-3 high-leaping senior outside hitter who was magnificent for the Trojans as they went to Honolulu and got past home team Hawaii and then Pepperdine in two epic, five-set matches.

“Surviving Honolulu was a major, major thing,” Haley said, whose team battled time-zone changes as well, and then came straight to Texas instead of stopping in Los Angeles to settle in and take final exams.

But in Hawaii, Jupiter had 33 kills against Hawaii and 17 against Pepperdine, when she was particularly strong late in the match.

“I don’t think USC is just Alex Jupiter, but she’s one of the more complete players in the country,” Illinois’ Hambly said. “I see a lot of great players around her.”

USC, the only team here without a transfer, gets 4.38 kills per set from Jupiter, 2.86 from junior outside Katie Fuller and 2.64 from senior middle Lauren Williams. The Trojans boast a balanced block at the net.

“They’re a very good team,” Hambly said. “They have all the pieces to be a championship team.”