SEATTLE -- It was a championship bout with a left and right attack. And after the final round of an exceptionally high-energy match, Penn State emerged with a 3-1 (25-19, 26-24, 20-25, 25-23) victory against Big Ten rival Wisconsin. It was Penn State’s fifth volleyball championship in the past seven seasons, and sixth overall, tying Stanford for the highest total in NCAA women’s Division I volleyball history.
The attack from the left came from Penn State setter Micha Hancock, voted the most outstanding player of the championships. Hancock’s blistering serve—delivered with her left arm—offered the razor-thin difference throughout the match and—in particular—the deciding fourth set.“She’s one of the elites,” Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said. “We had no offense at all when she was serving.”
“She’s the best-ever in the nation,” Wisconsin libero Annemarie Hickey said.
Penn State’s right side attack ran primarily through Ariel Scott, who pounded a match-high 21 kills on 51 attempts. The 6-4 All-American was matched up against Wisconsin’s 5-7 dynamo, Deme Morales, nine-inch advantage.
“We planned to go over Morales, because she’s shorter,” Hancock said. “[Morales] is a great player, but we’ve got the hammer over there.”
Throughout the match, Wisconsin countered with a right-side attack of its own. Setter Lauren Carlini sent her middles in motion, connecting almost at will on slides to Dominque Thompson, who finished with a team-high 16 kills on 35 swings. “She’s probably one of the most underrated middles in country,” Carlini said. “People look at her height and think, ‘oh, she can’t be good.’”
Oh, yes, Thompson’s height. Just like her teammate Morales, 5-11 Thompson gave away several inches to her opponent, Penn State’s 6-6 Katie Slay. Yet Wisconsin scored a disproportionate percentage of its points off serve with Morales and Thompson on the front row. Their grit was part of the reason why the Badgers got all the way to set point in the second frame, and reached 23-23 in the fourth. The rest of the story? Lights-out defense.
“That’s what we do,” Sheffield said. “We defend like crazy. It doesn’t always look pretty, but we’ll throw our bodies around with the best of them.”
Throwing bodies around was more than a metaphor; late in the match, Wisconsin libero AnneMarie Hickey landed wrong, popping her shoulder out of its socket. She refused to leave the game.
“It hurt pretty bad,” Hickey admitted. “But we were playing with such high intensity, and we were winning the set. All I wanted to do was win for my teammates.”
And Wisconsin came close. Its second-set late lead evaporated with two service errors and some furious Penn State defense down the stretch. The Badgers seemed in control of the fourth set, but it was Hancock who made the difference.
Because Hancock is a lefty, her powerful jump serve comes at defenders from an angle they rarely see. It’s a high risk/high reward skill that sometimes produced errors instead of aces. After missing a couple of serves, her coach, Russ Rose told Hancock during a timeout to switch to a safer serve.
“Sometimes players swear at the coaches,” Rose said, with a grin. “I can’t repeat how the conversation went.” Hancock, however, insisted she continue using a jump serve. “Then you might want to serve it in,” Rose told her.
So with her team trailing 22-23, she stepped to the line. Her first serve, an ace, forced a Wisconsin timeout. Her second serve, barely handled by the Badgers, was over-passed for a Slay kill, forcing a second timeout. Her third serve? Another ace, setting up the final rally, and a Penn State victory.
“This was a match we had to grind out against a really good opponent,” said Rose. “It was hard to win this championship.”