OKLAHOMA CITY These national semifinals should look all too familiar to Penn State and Texas.
Penn State hopes for more of the same.
Texas not so much.
On Thursday night, Penn State (34-3) plays Stanford (33-1) in the second match of the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship. Both schools have six national titles. In September, at Stanford, the Cardinal beat Penn State in five sets.
But Penn State is the defending champ and its task Thursday night is similar to the one it had last year: Beating Washington on essentially its home court to move on. Stanford is not at home, but is the top-ranked team in the country, the team that Penn State coach Russ Rose voted No. 1 all season long.
And Texas? The Longhorns ran into a buzz saw last year in Seattle, losing to red-hot, where-did-you-come-from Wisconsin. Now this year, Texas (27-2) which won it all in 2012 and is making its sixth semifinals appearance in seven years, opens play in Chesapeake Energy Arena against BYU (29-4), which is about the last team you might have expected here when the tournament began two weeks ago.
It’s going to be awesome, said Karch Kiraly, not only the former great American player, but the USA Olympic women’s coach and analyst for the ESPN2 broadcast.
I cant wait for those two matches.
He’s not alone. As Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said, the sport is growing and TV ratings are increasing exponentially.
You’re starting to see attendance across the country skyrocket, Elliott said.
It doesnt hurt that nearly every Big Ten and Pac-12 match is televised on their respective networks, all Texas matches are on their own Longhorn Network, the Big 12 gets its share of matches on TV and the SEC Network does the same in conjunction with ESPN3.
And last weekend helped drive interest with exciting matches like Texas 31-29 defeat of North Carolina in the fourth set to win the regional, or BYU shockingand sweepingNebraska a day after beating homesteading Washington.
I think [both matches Thursday] are evenly matched, Kiraly said. It’s going to be fascinating, for example, to see the strength of block that BYU has with somebody like Jen Hamson, maybe the best right-side blocker in the country going against somebody like Haley Eckerman.
Hamson, of course, is the 6-foot-7 wrecking crew who has the enviable task of choosing between basketball and volleyball at the next level.
Said Elliott: When she’s on fire she’s one of the best players in the country.
Eckerman has been the face of Texas volleyball for four years.
What might make it even more intriguing, Kiraly said, is Texas isnt the best passing team, so they will be running a lot of high left side. To see that block against that left side should be fascinating. I think it’s going to be close, but I give Texas the advantage by just a hair just because of having of been here so many times and their experience and winning here two years ago with many of the same players.
Kiraly called the second semifinal the battle of the behemoths.
Indeed. When you say big-girl volleyball, think Stanford-Penn State. Although what you will see Thursday should be completely different than what they saw in each other in September. Both teams have made many lineup and strategy changes and both say theyre playing better.
Stanford and Penn State are playing the best volleyball of any teams in the country, so you could make a good argument that it’s really the NCAA final and whoever wins that has a major advantage and has cleared the road to win a title Saturday night, Kiraly offered.
It’s going to be an absolute war.
Stanford, of course, lost to Penn State in the regional final last year after holding a 9-6 lead in the fifth set.
Lots of people are disappointed that the two teams have to play both last year in the regional finals and this year in the semis, Kiraly said. They would have loved to have seen them on opposite sides of the bracket.
Regardless, the rivalry between the coaches, John Dunning of Stanford (and formerly Pacific) and Rose of Penn State, in many ways has defined college volleyball the past 20 years.
For me it goes back to when I was the coach at U of P, Dunning said. We just had some great matches with them. In 99 we lost in the final four to them in a great five-set match. We played in a couple of final fours since Ive been at Stanford in the final match. We had an amazing match last year.
You get to my time as a coach and great matches are amazing. Everyone hates losing, but the great part of it is you can bring out the best in yourselves when you get challenged.
Rose would have to agree.
I like John, Rose said. We’re good friends. You never like the downside of beating one of your friends but you also hold your head high when you know it’s a great match. And I had the same relationship with Don Shaw, who preceded John at Stanford.
Rose, after all, is in his 36th year at Penn State.
We’ve had some great matches and it’s not personal, Rose said. We go on the golf course and if he beats me by 10 or 15 strokes that would be more personal. But I am smart enough to know to get the 10 or 15 up front.
No telling how Shawn Olmstead, the BYU coach, does on the golf course, but he’s done pretty well on the volleyball court. Before the NCAA tournament, BYU had losses to Washington (in five) and Colorado State (in four) to show on the so-called positive side, but not a single signature victory.
But the Cougars lead the nation in blocking and got everyone’s attention by opening the tournament with wins over Seton Hall and Arizona and then upsetting Florida State before dispatching Nebraska.
Their rally cry has been Why not us?
We’re just in a position that these kids, there’s some sort of confirmation of their hard work in terms of they’re the ones that put out this goal, said Olmstead, whose team won the West Coast Conference. I mean, they did it on their own. They did this a long time ago in August. To be able to actually see a plan in place in life and here it is and here’s what we’ve got to do to get there, I mean, that’s pretty darn remarkable.
Midway through the season, we actually reevaluated and literally where we wanted to be midway through the season, the girls were exactly on track. And that was, what, like mid-October, something like that. We had a team meeting. Here’s where you guys said you wanted to be at midway point.
You’re right there. Let’s keep getting better, like I said earlier, let’s just keep grinding.
And theyve grinded their way right into the national semifinals. Can they be this year’s Wisconsin?
You could argue that last year Texas made a mistake in looking past Wisconsin in the semifinals to a championship match with either Washington or Penn State. Kiraly flat out said as much.
Not this year, the Longhorns claim.
I think this year were focusing on the game ahead us, which is BYU, Eckerman said.
Last year, I think we might have overlooked Wisconsin a little bit. This year we know BYU is good. Obviously they got here. We have to focus on BYU and only BYU and making sure that we take care of what we need to do against them.
One match at a time. With only three left no matter what, as Kiraly said, it should be fascinating.