SEATTLE -- No, it wasn’t easy, not the way so many probably expected after Penn State advanced to the title match by crushing Washington on Thursday.
And, yes, Wisconsin was that good by season’s end, a scrappy shorter-than-they-should-be bunch that caught fire at the right time and wasn’t going away quietly.
But when it was all said and done, meet the new boss.
Same as the old boss.
Penn State is No. 1 when it matters and for the fifth time in seven years and the sixth time overall.
Sure, had Wisconsin not missed those two serves late in set two, maybe things would have been different. But they weren’t, and Penn State’s 25-19, 26-24, 20-25, 25-23 victory before another sold-out Key Arena crowd where most of them were rooting for the underdogs left the Nittany Lions atop the college volleyball world once again.
Russ Rose, now with 35 years at the helm behind him, won it all in 1999, 2007, ’08, ’09 and ’10 and now No. 6 ties his Penn State program with Stanford for the most all time.
Speaking of Stanford, it was just a week ago that Penn State and the Cardinal played a match for the ages, a five-setter in which Rose’s women rallied from down 9-6 in the tiebreaker to advance to the NCAA Division I Championships here.
Penn State lost in the national semifinals last year to Oregon in a match that saw super-serving setter Micha Hancock tear ligaments in her ankle. This year, she was a one-woman wrecking crew. That stat line of three service aces and four errors doesn’t do her justice.
Or, as Wisconsin first-year coach Kelly Sheffield said, “She’s what, a junior? Jesus.”
Wisconsin, which ended its season 28-10, led 23-21 when its only senior, Annemarie Hickey, had a service error.
It was Hancock time. She served, a rally ensued, and then big senior middle Katie Slay buried an overpass for her team-high 14th kill of the match.
After a timeout, Hancock hit an ace. And then the match ended on Deja McClendon poking a loose ball to the floor for the national-title point.
“You know, I didn't want to go to five,” Hancock said. “I don't think anyone did.”
She admitted that having it tough might have been better than winning easy.
“It’s a little sweeter,” Hancock said. “Yeah.”
Penn State, which never lost again after losing in five at home to Michigan State on Sept. 27, won its final 25 matches and ended 34-2.
“Amazing. Period,” said Penn State senior right side Ariel Scott, who had a match-high 21 kills in 51 swings for a .294 hitting percentage. “I couldn't be happier. There was no better way to end my collegiate career. So I'm ecstatic.”
So, too, was Rose, who refused to compare his six titles.
“It's like asking me about the birth of my children, how do they rank, you know what I mean? How many kids do I have, honey,” he asked his wife in the back of the interview room. “Six? Eight?”
Actually, he and Lori Rose have four sons.
“I don't rate it, you know what I mean. I'm not trying to set the bar high. We're just we're trying to compete. We want to grind. This is what we do.”
Grind was the word of the night, especially for Wisconsin, which had a 1-1 tie in its grasp at the end of the second set. The Badgers led 23-22 when Courtney Thomas had a service error.
They tied it on a kill by Dominique Thompson, the little middle who could who finished with 16 kills and perhaps would have been MVP of the tournament instead of Hancock had Wisconsin won.
But then diminutive Deme Morales, who finished with 15 kills, had a service error and Penn State had new life at 24-24. Hancock went to Scott on back-to-back sets and she sent the teams to intermission with the Nittany Lions up 2-0.
In the third set, Wisconsin rallied, taking advantage of an out-of-sync McClendon, who struggled most of the night and hit just .068 with 11 kills.
But it was not to be for the 12th-seeded team that finished fourth in the Big Ten.
“That’s a really good team,” Rose said. “I don’t think we should look at this as anything other than this was a match where we had to grind out against a really good opponent. It was hard to win this championship. It wasn’t easy.
“It was hard to play against Stanford. We played great against Washington and the perception was we might have done the same [against Wisconsin] but we had two matches where we played against Wisconsin earlier and in both matches they had us hitting 80 percentage points lower than what we hit and we had them hitting 80 percentage points lower than what they hit.
“It’s two proud programs battling.”
Wisconsin, making its first trip back to the final four since losing to unbeaten Nebraska in the 2000 title match, should be extremely proud.
Wisconsin finished 12-8 in Big Ten play this season and tied for fourth. But in 2012, the Badgers limped into the finish line, going 17-16, 5-15 in the Big Ten. They lost eight of their last nine and 10 of the final 12 games of the season.
“To be honest, all the girls on the team were fed up,” said Wisconsin junior hitter Ellen Chapman, who led the Badgers with 2.86 kills per set. “And then there was loss after loss after loss and not making the tournament, it was like let’s just let this season be done so we can move on with our lives.”
She couldn’t have imagined being in Seattle at this time last year.
“No way. No way. No way in hell. A lot of girls on the team, including myself, were just kind of burned out. Losing a lot of matches in a row is really hard. It took a toll on my love for the game and I was thinking if this was what I wanted to do. I did high jump in high school and I was thinking of going back to that instead of volleyball. But Kelly has given me back the love for volleyball that I didn’t think was there.
“Last year [during the season] I did not think this was possible.”
Chapman admitted that if there was not a coaching change she was strongly thinking of quitting volleyball.
Then longtime coach Pete Waite resigned and Wisconsin hired Sheffield.
“Kelly has an interesting way of going about things,” she said, “and he somehow, even though he talks and talks and talks and makes jokes at the wrong moments sometimes, he does a good job with what he says and does a good job of motivating his team.”
He’s obviously good at it, as evidenced by this NCAA Tournament run that included knocking off No. 1 Texas in four sets on Thursday.
“The part that maybe gets lost with people is Wisconsin? Wisconsin is really good,” Rose said. “They made it to the finals. They could have won the national championship. The story is how good those kids played.”
It was a good story, but when it was all said and done, no matter what Rose says or how many kids he has, the story was Penn State. It wasn’t lost on Rose, who is Penn State through and through, that this victory occurred on what would have been Joe Paterno’s 87th birthday. Penn State has been through a lot the past few years.
“I mean, every victory, I want to win every game we play,” Rose said. “So you want to get into situations where you can compete for a national championship. I thought we had a team last year that could have won it. We finished second numerous times that I thought we should have won it.
“So we work hard. Everybody works hard. It's not lucky that you get yourself into this situation and you have to really appreciate it.”
Hancock, the junior from Oklahoma City, which just happens to be the site of next year’s final four, certainly did.
“People say you can't put it into words and you really can't,” said Hancock.” A lot of people have said it's the best feeling in the world. It really is, because to prove you're the best team in the nation is a pretty cool thing.”