SEATTLE -- Sometimes small things turn out to be big things. Friday night in Seattle, the smallest roll of a volleyball across a net unleashed a torrent of points that swept Penn State to victory in its DI women’s volleyball semifinal against Washington.
Washington led 11-9 in the first set when Penn State setter Micha Hancock’s serve clipped the net and hung in suspension. If it had rolled back, Washington might have built confidence and a lead. But it rolled forward, for an ace, and launched an 8-0 Nittany Lion run that deflated what could have been a home-court advantage in Seattle’s Key Arena.
“Micha goes back and hits that jump serve,” Washington coach Jim McLaughlin said, “and that deflated us.”
As it turned out, Penn State never looked back, dominating every phase of the match in a surgical 3-0 win (25-14, 25-13, 25-16), that sets up an all-Big Ten title match Saturday night against Wisconsin. But Hancock -- who has the DI's second-best ace per set percentage -- had been struggling with her serve of late.
Her coach, Russ Rose, admitted as much. After the match, he asked Hancock, “when was the last time I said you played terrific?” Her serve is important, Rose said, because Penn State “scores more points with her serving than the other rotations combined.”
In the second set, Washington trailed 9-6 when Hancock did it again, reeling off another seven consecutive points. All season long, the PAC-12 champion Huskies had excelled at both serve and serve receive, but on this night had no answer for Hancock’s powerful jumpers.
“She's a lefty,” said Washington libero Jenna Orlandini. “The ball is coming from a different curve when you have that kind of pace on it and that kind of speed. You just have to really get your angle right on it, because usually that's not the way the ball's coming towards you.”
Penn State passed as well as it served. “They're a team that you gotta win the serve and pass,” said McLaughlin, “and we had done that all year. We didn't do it tonight. I think they missed four passes. That's unbelievable.”
Another PSU standout was four-time AVCA All-American Deja McClendon, who led all hitters with 11 kills. But it was her defense -- she had 13 digs, many of them sensational -- that crushed any hopes of a Husky comeback.
“Deja's a wonderful young person,” Rose said. “She's been our best player all year. The things that she does are the intangibles that coaches recognize more than people who look at the box score. She's our best passer, our best defensive player, our best left‑side blocker. And there's times she's unstoppable hitting.”
With McClendon leading the way, the Nittany Lions were able to all but shut down Pac-12 Player of the Year Krista Vansant, who complimented Penn State’s unyielding defense. “They kept the pressure on us the entire time. That's one of the reasons they were so dominant.”
As Penn State prepares to try to defeat Wisconsin for the third time this season, it will be facing a team that shares several traits with Washington: good serving, good passing, a varied offense. When one of his players started to answer questions about how Penn State had prepared for Washington, her coach cut her short. “That’s enough on the scouting report,” said Rose, saying he’s ready to start preparing to face the Badgers.
“Maybe some people thought the first match [Wisconsin defeating Texas] was an upset, and maybe some people don't. I didn't think Wisconsin thought it was an upset.”