Coming into the 2010 season many polls (including the one in this magazine) had Penn State ranked number one. Since then they dropped their first match in over three years and have had to retool their game plan.
Nestled in the mountains of central Pennsylvania there is a brick building. Inside that brick building there is a volleyball court. And above that volleyball court hangs four NCAA women’s volleyball championship banners.
The walls of Rec Hall on the campus of Penn State University are lined with photos of past conference and national champions. One of the signs reads: “This is Our House.” And for the past ten years it has been just that.
Coming into this season, the Penn State women’s volleyball team has posted a 192-11 record on its home floor over the last decade. And they have won 42 of 45 NCAA tournament matches played in Rec Hall.
From 2007-2010 the Nittany Lions set a NCAA record for the longest winning streak by a women’s team, winning 109 consecutive matches. During that run, the Lions won three straight national titles.
The Nittany Lions have built a national volleyball powerhouse in the most unlikely of places, an agriculture school in the middle of God’s country. But things weren’t always so great in Happy Valley in terms of volleyball. The program had to be built from scratch and take some lumps along the way.
The program was founded in 1976 under Head Coach Tom Tait. In its inaugural season, Penn State went a dismal 6-11-3, including a 13-match stretch when it won just two matches. Tait would coach the Lions for two more seasons, amassing 51-33-4 record over his three seasons at the helm.
Russ Rose succeeded Tait at the start of the 1979 season and despite the program posting respectable records the previous two seasons, Rose said it was still difficult for the Lions to keep up with the nation’s top competition.
“When I came [to Penn State] we had three in-state scholarships,” Rose said. “We were playing teams that had 12 scholarships so it was a different era back then.
“You’d go to the national championships and you’d see your pool and there would be a couple of teams that were similar to you: under-funded, from different parts of the country. And there would be these two powerhouses that had 10 or 12 great players and you’d say, ‘We should have a good match with so and so, but it doesn’t look so good against USC.’”
The Lions ran into the USC team in the 1980 Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) championship and lost 15-5, 15-1. (The AIAW was the governing body for women’s college athletics at the time.) Penn State qualified for its first NCAA tournament the next season but lost to another California school, University of the Pacific, in the regionals.
Penn State built a reputation of being a powerful team in the east, but still had trouble competing with the dominant programs out west. Besides being under-funded, the program had few scholarships and a recruiting area that wasn’t replete with standout volleyball stars like states on the West Coast.
According to Rose, the East Coast had some volleyball talent, but it was difficult to keep those players from leaving their homes for the much more attractive West Coast schools. But for Rose, it was never about selling his school and his program over others. He wants players that want to wear the Blue and White.
“I don’t feel any need to talk about other schools, I don’t feel any need to enter into that realm,” the coach said. “The way I’m wired, I want people that want to be here so I don’t have to feel like I had to kiss someone’s [butt] to get them to come here.”
Current middle hitter and team captain Blair Brown said Rose’s recruiting policy is what made her want to come to Penn State from her high school in Purcellville, Va.
“When everybody was trying to get me to come to their school, Coach was just kind of like, ‘My school speaks for itself,’” Brown said.
While Rose’s recruiting tactics have drawn plenty of talent to State College, Pa., it was a move that was made 15 years before Brown and any of the current Lions came to Penn State. Rose credits Penn State’s joining the Big Ten in 1991 as the moment that turned the program into the one that it is today.
Prior to joining the Big Ten, Penn State competed in the Atlantic 10, winning eight consecutive conference championships from 1983 to 1990. But the Lions still had trouble competing with teams outside of the Atlantic 10 and away from the eastern seaboard.
After the Lions joined the Big Ten, they became fully funded and the number of scholarships eventually increased from just three in-state scholarships to 12. More so, the level of competition among Penn State’s opponents increased dramatically. Instead of having to travel west to play the top competition in the country, the Lions could now simply play their conference schedule and see some of the best teams the country had to offer.
Six seasons after joining the Big Ten, Penn State had its first of two strings of dominance. From 1996-99, the Lions lost just six matches, three in conference, and won the NCAA championship in 1999, sweeping Stanford.
The second string of success came from 2007-2009, when the Lions lost just two matches and won three consecutive national championships. During that period, Penn State was a perfect 60-0 in conference matches and did not lose a set during the 2008 regular season.
Penn State’s success over the past 15 years has created a sort of East Coast/West Coast dynamic in the college volleyball world. Since its inception, teams on the West Coast dominated NCAA volleyball, and while teams from other areas have challenged the West, nobody has done it to the level that Penn State has.
But to ask the Nittany Lions players, there isn’t a rivalry.
“I think it’s a rivalry if you make it a rivalry,” libero Alyssa D’Errico said. “I don’t think it’s based on placement, I think it’s just the competitive nature of the game.”
Coming into this season, the Lions had the pressure of a 102-match winning streak and three straight national titles. Coupled with that was the fact that Penn State lost its setter and best hitter from the previous four seasons, Alisha Glass and Megan Hodge.
The loss of Glass and Hodge and the influx of nine freshmen has created a transition period for the team that had been unbeatable for the previous three seasons.
“It’s been a challenge, but it’s a challenge we really expected,” D’Errico said. “Obviously we didn’t expect to have some of the losses that we did, but they’re growing pains. Every team is gonna have them when you have young people playing key roles.”
“I have nine freshmen. Two of them won state championships. Seven of them, their seasons ended prematurely,” Rose said. “It was unfair at the beginning of the year for those people to be ranked No. 1 in the country when they hadn’t done anything.”
Rose added that he voted the Lions 10th in the country coming into the season, and even that may have been a bit lofty. The Lions lost their first match in over three years on Sept. 11, a sweep at the hands of Stanford.
Despite the changes to the Penn State program, Rose and his team feel they have some of the pieces needed to continue the tradition of dominance seen in the past 15 years.
“We have some characteristics of a team that can compete at the top level. We have tradition and we have some players that have played major roles in those matches,” Rose said. “If I was to handicap it right now, are we the leading candidate to win the national championship in 2010? No. Could we compete for it? We’re going to do everything we can to get ourselves in the position to get on the board.”
Originally published in January 2011