The Five-Time National Champs Look to Add a Sixth

Justin Casterline
Penn State celebrates their win over Minnesota in the regional finals.

If Reggie Jackson was baseball’s Mr. October, Penn State’s Russ Rose is volleyball’s Mr. December.

Outwardly, at least, Reggie showed more excitement.

Like when Penn State won those four consecutive championships. Everyone else celebrated while Rose still sat on the bench, writing his final match notes.

So when looking back on last weekend, when top-ranked and top-seeded Penn State (33-2) advanced to its fifth NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship in six years, Rose was typically matter of fact.

At least he did joke – well, it seemed to be a joke -- that he would already be breaking down video were it not for media obligations.

“I’m happy to be in it,” Rose said. “We had a tough match with a very competitive Minnesota team [winning 25-19, 19-25, 26-24, 25-50] that had beaten Texas and Nebraska during the year. That was a team that improved throughout the year, as one would expect, with great talent and great coaching and we had to play well.

“And now we’re matched up with Oregon and on the other half of the bracket are two teams that we played during the year.”

It was the third time Penn State had beaten Minnesota this season, twice in Big Ten regular-season play. The Nittany Lions have also beaten the other two teams in the final four, sweeping Texas back on September 1 at Penn State. In their only conference meeting with Michigan, they were stretched to the limit, winning 15-10 in the fifth.

For that matter, Penn State’s only two losses this season came to Oregon State, falling 15-12 in the fifth, and at Nebraska, again 15-10 in the fifth on October 28.

Since then, the Nittany Lions have gone 12-0 and lost just three sets, two of those to Minnesota.

The last time Penn State played Oregon was in State College on August 26, 2011, and the Ducks came in and not only beat the four-time defending national champion, but ended their 94-match home winning streak.

This is Rose’s 34th year as Penn State’s head coach during which time he’s gone 1,091-174. He’s going for his sixth national title, having won it all in 1999, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Like all of those teams, this squad has a powerful offense and plays great defense.

Penn State is hitting .307 as a team.

“It’s good when you take into account the level of teams that you’re playing,” Rose said. “If you’re in a weaker conference and you do that, that’s one thing, but to be able to do that in the Big Ten is a little bit different. But, again, we had a team a couple of years ago that hit close to .400.”

Penn State hit .390 in 2008 and .381 in 2009.

More importantly, however, is opponents are hitting .127 against Penn State. For comparison, the only team left with a better percentage is Texas, hitting a nation-leading .322. Opponents have hit .174 against the Longhorns.

“I’m more concerned with what people are hitting against us than what we’re doing,” Rose said. “[In the second-round NCAA tournament match] Kentucky hit 40 percent against us and Kentucky is a good offensive team. That’s more of what’s important to me.”

When you’re talking Penn State defense, you might start with 6-6 junior middle Katie Slay, who has a team leading 156 blocks this season to go along with 272 kills. She’s hitting a whopping .421 for the season.

Nia Grant, a 6’2” sophomore outside hitter, has 115 blocks and with 199 kills is hitting .386. Sophomore Dominique Gonzales led the Nittany Lions with 435 digs.

Penn State’s offense is led by 6’4” junior outside Ariel Scott, the Big Ten Player of the Year who has 451 kills and is hitting .321. She had 52 kills in the first four NCAA matches. Twenty-three of those came in the match against Minnesota when she hit .422.

And much of the focus this week will be on 6’1” junior outside hitter Deja McClendon, who played at Dupont Manual Magnet high school in Louisville and for the prominent KIVA club program. She has 389 kills, is hitting .252, and has 41 kills in NCAA postseason play. She was the AVCA National Freshman of the Year during Penn State’s 2010 national-championship season.

“We already played at Louisville this year,” Rose said, recalling his team’s 3-0 victory on August 25. “She’ll have a good fan following and she’ll do great. We’re confident that she’ll play well and it’ll be good for a local kid to get some attention. She’s a good kid.”

The former Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year and her teammates know that playing Oregon and, if they win in the semis, the winner of Texas-Michigan, will not likely be as lopsided as their first three matches, but more like the Minnesota battle.

In their first three NCAA matches, all of which Penn State won in three, the Nittany Lions won the sets by an average of 11.6 points.

Minnesota, however, gave Penn State all it could handle.

“You need to have a match where you’re tested,” Rose said. “The team a few years ago all the matches were the same for us and it didn’t make a difference. We thought we could do whatever we wanted to do against whoever we played and the stats and results probably verified that.

“But this team, the Minnesota match was a tough match. They took away a lot of things we traditionally like to do and they competed hard and we had to compete hard.

“We’ll have other challenges as go forward this week. Oregon has had some great wins over the year and to be able to beat Nebraska in Omaha puts them in a small fraternity of teams that have done that. Having been one of the teams to have done it [Penn State beat Nebraska in Omaha in the 2008 national semifinal], I know how difficult it is.”

He laughed.

“We have the film but I haven’t had a chance to look at it because I’ve got too many media things happening,” Rose said. “But I’m going to work on it in a second.”

More volleyball coverage by writer Lee Feinswog

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