OKLAHOMA CITY -- Take nothing away from Texas and BYU, Thursday’s first semifinal at the 2014 NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championships, but the feature presentation, the Hollywood extravaganza, the matchup everyone wants to see, is scheduled to begin at 9:30 p.m.
Mention Penn State and Stanford in regards to volleyball and you get a history lesson in championships. The story will continue when the 33-1 Cardinal face the 34-3 Nittany Lions with a trip to the finals on the line.The Nittany Lions won the 2013 NCAA championship and four consecutive from 2007 to 2010. Head coach Russ Rose, in his 36th year, helped provide the program’s first trophy in 1999. Three times, PSU finished as bridesmaids.
Stanford has been at the top of the ladder since the NCAA first sanctioned women’s championships in 1981. After three second-place showings, the Cardinal claimed its first title in 1992 coached by Don Shaw. Five more trophies followed, the latest in 2004 under current head coach John Dunning.
In back-to-back NCAA finals, 2007 and 2008, PSU knocked off Stanford to hoist the trophy. The 1999 title tilt in Hawaii also saw Rose’s Lions beat the Cardinal for top honors. The 1997 championship final, a five-set thriller, ended with the Californians in red and white beating the Pennsylvanians in blue and white.
It's a clash of titans that rivals UConn-Tennessee in women’s hoops; Oklahoma State and Iowa in men’s wrestling or even Wisconsin-Whitewater/Mount Union in Division III football. Compare it to whatever you want. The bottom line is two programs with a combined twelve national titles will square off inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The two heavyweights provided a preview back in September. PSU rookie Ali Frantti made sure volleyball fans knew she was for real, finishing with 22 kills in a five-set thriller in Palo Alto. But the other side of the net saw the trio of Morgan Boukather, Inky Ajanaku, and Jordan Burgess combine for 39 kills with setter Madi Bugg providing 43 assists in a Cardinal victory.
“I think we are better than we were in September,” Burgess said on Wednesday. “I think everyone always strives for that, when you go through a season.”
“I think when we get to the court tomorrow we’ll find out if we’re better, playing a team we played in September,” Dunning added. “We had a great match with them. I think all of the teams here are better now than they were when the season started.”
Rose took a team west that was trying to replace 10 seasons’ worth of All-Americans.
“My concern going into the match was the sort of damage that Stanford could have done to us that could have impacted our psyche for the balance of the season,” said Rose, whose club is 34-3 entering Thursday. “But I thought we competed really well; the match was a good match. And what impact did that do from then to now? Two separate teams. Our lineup is significantly different.”
One thing that has remained the same since that first meeting is Micha Hancock.
The most valuable player of the 2013 NCAA Championships is the next in a long line of greats to wear PSU colors. She can best be described as Ms. Everything.
From the service line, her chaotic-inducing left-handed knuckle-ball mixed with the power of MLB great Randy Johnson is the stuff of legend dating back to her days at Edmond Memorial High School just up the road in Oklahoma. Once a rally starts, Hancock is at the center of it all.
“She’s a great player,” Dunning said. “Obviously that’s an understatement. She’s one of those players that is at the center of her team and she draws a lot of attention to herself.
“But I think the most important thing is that she’s extremely experienced; she’s been here, she understands what it’s like.”
Thursday’s matchup, however, is not about individual players. It’s about two programs that respect each other’s legacy. Old ball coaches become rivals. They also often become friends.
“I like John [Dunning],” Rose said of his adversary. “We’re good friends. You never like the downside of beating one of your friends but you also hold your head high when you know it’s a great match. And I had the same relationship with [Don] Shaw.
“We’ve had some great matches and it’s not personal. We go on the golf course; he beats me by 10 or 15 strokes, that would be more personal. But I am smart enough to know to get the 10 or 15 up front.”
Stanford is the top seed; PSU was No. 5 when the 2014 tourney tipped off. Those numbers won’t mean much come Thursday night as Oklahoma City could be treated to another classic.
The appetizer might not be so bad either.
Two-sport star Jennifer Hamson, a 6-foot-7 draft pick of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks and a formidable foe across any volleyball net leads underdog BYU against 2012 champion Texas, the No. 2 seed that brings a 27-2 standard to OKC.
“They’ve really bought into just getting better every single day at practice,” BYU head coach Shawn Olmstead said. “We’ve finished every day at practice and we look back on it and I can tell in these kids that they just feel like they’ve gotten better every day.”
The Cougars are 29-4 and have dispatched Seton Hall, No. 11 Arizona, No. 6 Florida State, and No. 14 Nebraska -- on its home court -- to advance to the national semifinals. The nation’s top blocking squad got a pep talk from Olmstead prior to taking the court against the Huskers.
“I went in right before we left the locker room and said ‘Girls, here’s what I know is what’s going on. Texas is in. Penn State is in, and I told the girls, at home I knew Stanford was up pretty big on Florida and I said, here’s the last matchup of Saturday night. It’s BYU against Nebraska. And I said who does everybody think fits into that fourth spot?’
“And it was a resounding. They didn’t even need to answer nor did I want them to answer. Their eyes lit up.”
The Longhorns were favored to beat Wisconsin in the 2013 national semifinals. The Badgers, however, ended the defending champions’ season with a four-set win.
“I think this year we’re focusing on the game ahead of us, which is BYU,” UT’s Haley Eckerman said. “Last year I think we may have overlooked Wisconsin a little bit; this year we know BYU is good.”
The festivities kick off at 7 p.m.