SEATTLE -- The conversation was back in early September and Russ Rose, never one to break an arm throwing bouquets to anyone so much as his Penn State volleyball team, no matter how great the Nittany Lions appear to be, said that yes, perhaps in a couple of months, his team might turn out pretty good.
“We had all the tools to be successful,” Rose said Friday, a day after smothering Washington in the national semifinals. “But you never know how players are going to develop. You never know how just the wear and tear of a season can take kids down.”
On Labor Day weekend, Penn State went to Austin for the Nike Big 4 Classic and first faced Texas, which won in five, 15-10 in the fifth, as the Nittany Lions committed 22 -- yes, 22 -- serving errors, six by Micha Hancock alone. But more on her later.
Rose was not a happy camper that Saturday but the Nitanny Lions bounced back the next day by sweeping Florida. And they've only lost one other time since, in five to Michigan State in late September.
“Certainly at the beginning of the season when you had three or four kids coming back off [medical] procedures, certainly that didn’t allow us to come out of the gate as strong as we maybe could have,” said Rose, finishing his 35th season in Happy Valley.
“And certainly some of the players are tired. It’s a long season. Some of them have taken a lot of swings or hit the floor a lot of times or been challenged to make good decisions a lot.
“But if we’re judging on our last match, we were really good last night.”
Good doesn’t come close, of course. The dominating sweep of Washington (25-14, 25-13, 25-16, with just five hitting errors) showed that, yes, things turned out all right this season. As a result, Penn State (33-2), which has won 24 matches in a row, faces Big Ten foe Wisconsin (28-9) in Saturday’s NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship title match. Wisconsin, of course, stunned top-seeded Texas (25-19, 25-18, 26-28, 25-23).
In their two Big Ten meetings this season, Penn State won 3-0 both times (25-22, 25-17, 25-21 at Penn State and 25-23, 27-25, 25-16 in Madison).
“I’ll point out two things,” Rose said. “They beat the No. 1 seed yesterday and two years ago at Wisconsin they beat us. I don’t think there would be any possibility of us not taking them seriously or looking past them. Wisconsin’s playing great right now and is the hot team right now. It’s a number of factors that make them really good and you’re going to have to match how hard they play if you have a hope of winning.”
Of course, no one is taking anyone lightly at this point. And consider this:
In those two Wisconsin matches, for example, Hancock had a combined three serving aces and four errors. You can say that Hancock giveth and Hancock taketh away.
Like on Thursday night, when Penn State absolutely destroyed Washington in the most lopsided final four match since the NCAA went to rally scoring in 2008. Hancock, the junior lefty setter from Edmond, Oklahoma, whose serve curves away to the receivers’ left and then bottoms out like a Vaseline-coated spitball, had three errors against the Huskies. But she also had three aces to boost her school-record mark to 251. What’s more, when she wasn’t getting aces, her serves kept Washington on its heels and out of system.
“I haven’t had the best season serving but it hasn’t been the worst,” said Hancock, who has 79 aces this season but 98 errors. “I’ve just been getting in the gym and practicing and hitting it hard deep and it’s been showing pretty good results lately.”
When she’s on, Hancock’s serve is a devastating missile. She’s also a fabulously athletic setter who can attack when playing the front row as good as most hitters. Against Washington, she was 5 for 8 with no errors.
“I thought Micha played great yesterday. I thought it was one of her better matches for sure this year. And if I had a better memory, maybe I could compare it to previous years, but I don't,” Rose said.
“I liked yesterday's match by her. I thought she served well. A little sloppy at the end, but she set well. She was with the game plan. And when [Ariel] Scott refers to her as being tough, she's a tough kid. Not to play with. She's just tough. She's not going to back down. She's going to compete. She's not going to shoot her mouth off, and she's going to play the game the right way.”
When she can. A year ago in Louisville at the final four, she tore three ligaments in her ankle during Penn State’s national semifinal loss to Oregon. She sucked it up and played -- “I didn’t want to make it chaotic when I left l the floor” -- but clearly with a healthy Hancock, Penn State might have won.
It took Rose a long time to win an NCAA title, finally grabbing his first in 1999. And then he won four in a row from 2007-2010, the first three with future national-team setter Alisha Glass and the last with future pro Kristin Carpenter. Clearly Hancock had big traditions to follow and did so admirably, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2011 and First Team All-American last year and this.
Hancock played 13s club as a 10-year-old because she had a sister, Kelsey, who was 13 at the time and later played at nearby Tulsa University. Her mom, Kelly, who coached her in her formative years, was a 6'2" setter in high school but played basketball at Oklahoma State. Her father, Michael, was a professional boxer.
And then Micha originally committed to Tulsa, but when coach Ed Allen left for Alabama, she begged out, realizing that it might be time to leave home and accept the challenge of playing for a big-time program. But playing for the hard-driving, extremely sarcastic Rose can be a challenge for any player, especially a setter.
“I think I'm tough on all the players that are important,” Rose said. “I think I'm tough on Micha. I think I'm tough on Dom [libero Dominique Gonzales]. When A. Scott decided she wanted to become a great player, I became tougher on A. Scott.”
Perhaps, but he’s been pretty tough on Hancock. But not too tough for her to take.
“I was always kept in perspective that what he was doing for me was making me a better player,” Hancock said. “And even when he was a butt-head and I was like hating him, I knew he was going to make me better.”
And there’s something else:
“He pushes the girls he knows can be pushed. It’s nice to know I have a coach like that pushing me.”
Rose isn’t being unique to Hancock, who’s hitting .348 for the season. He used to ride herd, for example, on Olympian Megan Hodge, one of the cornerstones of that four-year run.
“Part of the coaching component is you want to get the best out of every player that you can,” Rose said. “And you only have limited amount of time to do that both on a day-to-day exposure and during their career. So it would only make sense that a direct approach would be better than trying to beat around the bush with where we're trying to go.”
It’s a style that’s worked pretty well so far and one that’s admired by his opponent, first-year Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield, who has a great setter of his own in freshman phenom Lauren Carlini.
“A lot of people like to tear down success. I appreciate excellence, because that's something that I aspire to have and be surrounded with. And year in, year out, they've been the program that's consistently been either at the top or right there at the top. And that's what we're trying to build,” Sheffield said.
“What they have done, anybody can be a flash in the pan. You see a lot of that. But the thing I value is consistent greatness. And I think Russ has been great for the sport of volleyball.
“That Penn State volleyball has raised the standard, raised the bar for a lot of other programs that sit there and say you're either in or out if you're trying to beat those guys.
“And it's given us somebody to go after.”
“I don't have anything negative to say but I think they've been up there too long, though, and hopefully we're the ones to knock them down.”