OKLAHOMA CITY -- From a historical viewpoint, it would be easy to describe Saturday night’s NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship final as a David versus Goliath scenario.
Penn State won the 2013 NCAA title. With its victory against Stanford in Thursday’s semifinals, the Nittany Lions advanced to their 10th championship match in 34 NCAA Tournament appearances. Head coach Russ Rose is the Division I wins leader with 1,160. And add to the credentials that PSU won four consecutive NCAA crowns from 2007 to 2010.
The other side of the net features a BYU squad that entered the postseason unseeded. The credentials are limited: Once, in 1993 under Elaine Michaelis, the Cougar program advanced to the NCAA semifinals where they dropped a four-set match to Penn State. Now on the sidelines for BYU is Shawn Olmstead, who in four years owns a 103-24 record.BYU, however, has paid little attention to history. On Thursday, with the exception of a shaky third set, BYU -- West Coast Conference members -- beat the 2012 national champion Texas Longhorns. Other victims this postseason include No. 11 Arizona, No. 6 Florida State and No. 14 Nebraska.
“Personally, I don’t think it’s an upset,” said BYU junior Alexa Gray, who had 19 kills against the Longhorns. “The numbers beside the name is the only thing that says it’s an upset. We know we’re a good team. I think we have confidence that we can come in and play our hardest and that our best can beat anybody’s best here in the tournament.”
Olmstead, a 2005 BYU graduate, is simply enjoying the ride.
“I’m just enjoying every minute with these kids and there’s a couple of kids on this team that just don’t want this to end,” Olmstead said. “So I’ll hang out with them as long as they want to hang, and I’ll keep rolling with them.”
Against Texas, and the rest of the tournament field, the Cougars have made most scratch their heads and wonder how this team is unseeded.
Six-foot-7 senior Jennifer Hamson has led the pack. Fittingly, the two-sport star Hamson excelled against UT and recorded the final kill -- she had a game-high 22. Hamson was also part of a front line that held Texas attackers to a .162 hitting percentage.
Amy Boswell led the nation’s top blocking team with 8; Tambre Nobles and Whitney Young each had 7 blocks. When the Cougars weren’t blocking, they were digging. Nobles had 12, Ciara Parker had 11 and Hamson dug 10 times. And setting the table was freshman Alohi Robins-Hardy.
“We just wanted to make sure we had each other’s backs,” Nobles said.
At times, Gray was the best player on the court Thursday. Twelve of her 19 total kills came in the first two sets. Her attack percentage was .421 overall, well above her .288 clip entering the UT contest. Her 415 kills in 2014 are second to Hamson’s 450.
But if ever there was a need for a “complete team effort” it will come Saturday night inside the Chesapeake Energy Arena. Penn State is not just good, but really good.
There is a mix of experience starting with Micha Hancock, who will finish her collegiate career less than one hour from her hometown of Edmond, Oklahoma. Throughout the course of a match, Hancock does a little bit of everything.
She makes opponents a bit nervous with an intimidating serve; her one ace against Stanford on Thursday moved her career total to 379, a PSU record. Once rallies start the offense goes through Hancock, the 2013 NCAA’s most valuable player; her 55 assists against the Cardinal was three shy of her season high and moved her career total to 5,542. When a set is expected, sometimes, just at the right time, Hancock will craftily sneak in a quick kill; she had 5 in the semifinals.
Seniors Dominique Gonzalez and Lacey Fuller proved their worth in the semifinals. The duo combined for 35 digs, time and again keeping rallies going. Another senior, Nia Grant, had 5 kills and a team-leading 6 blocks.
“I don’t know if anybody lost what we lost [to graduation] last year,” Rose said. “To get back here and to play like we have is a testament to how this team has worked together.”
Junior Megan Courtney and a pair of freshmen, Ali Frantti and Haleigh Washington, have stepped up in a rather large way in 2014.
Courtney and Frantti attempted to ruin the Chesapeake Arena floor against the Cardinal. Courtney had a game-high 23 kills with Frantti finishing with 16; Courtney also had 16 digs.
“It’s nice to know you can chuck the ball outside and someone’s out there putting the ball down,” Hancock said.
Courtney’s role has changed.
“She’s been a key player in our program since she came in,” Rose said of Courtney. “We she first came in we had other hitters so her responsibility was a little different. And even this year maybe her responsibility wasn’t to be the go-to hitter -- Courtney has led the team in kills seven times in 38 matches.
“She’s our best volleyball IQ individual.”
Emotions will be flowing on both sides of the net.
Hancock spent hours learning her craft in Edmond. Her support is obvious this week, proven by the monster ovation she received during pre-match introductions on Thursday.
“It was emotional for me to see our send-off,” said Hancock, who will play her 144th career match on Saturday. “Our band, they came out and it was like what am I doing? I have semifinal match. I was like after that no more of this crybaby crap, I’m going to zone in and I’m going to play hard for my team.”
“I know she probably had some heavy burdens with thinking about trying to get this team back [to the semifinals] from the leadership role that she has at the setting position,” Rose said. “But being uniquely qualified, I don’t know if anyone is ever really qualified to do something like that. I think you look at it in hindsight ... how do they handle the various distractions? But to this point I think she’s doing great.”
The emotions will be similar for Olmstead and Hamson.
“There’s not enough words to describe that kid,” said Olmstead after Thursday’s victory. “And just what she’s done for the school; what she’s done for the sport of basketball, the sport of volleyball, the conference, everything. I mean, the kid’s been an outstanding representative.”
For a few hours Saturday night, nobody will care about what lies ahead. No decisions about professional basketball or U.S. national teams. No thoughts of the coming academic rigors of the spring semester; no thoughts of job hunting. Probably not even a moment’s worth of Christmas and New Year’s plans.
The only thing on the minds of BYU and Penn State is celebrating with the national championship trophy. It would be a familiar feeling for Nittany Lions supporters. BYU would love to know what it feels like.