OKC Welcomes the Usual Suspects, Plus BYU

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BYU head coach Shawn Olmstead high fives his team after the 3-0 sweep of Nebraska that advanced the Cougars to the final four.

BY-Who?

Well, someone had to crash this party, and why not the Cougars?

After a weekend in which we said goodbye to the college careers of some fantastic seniors, all of whom had eyes on Oklahoma City, three of the usual suspects are back into the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championships.

Texas plays the aforementioned BYU, the upstart from the West Coast Conference, an unseeded team making the school’s first final-four appearance since 1993.

And, on the other side of the bracket, ho-hum, another gripping, every-play-counts, cover-your-head and look-out-below matchup between Penn State and Stanford.

In this case, been-there done-that never gets boring. What’s more, it keeps alive the storyline that puts Penn State super senior setter Micha Hancock playing for it all just 15 miles from her hometown of Edmond, and Stanford’s remarkable middle Inky Ajanaku just more than 100 miles from her home of Tulsa.

Start with BYU (29-4), the school from Provo, Utah, that has had tremendous men’s volleyball success in recent years, but hadnt been this far in the women’s tournament in 21 years. A lot of its success this year has to do with Jennifer Hamson, at 6-foot-7 a heck of a story by herself.

In 2012 Hamson was the WCC Player of the Year and an All-American. But last year, she took the volleyball season off to concentrate on her final season of basketball. Now, in her redshirt senior season, she is, quite simply, a wrecking crew. In BYU’s victory stunning three-set victory over Nebraska, Hamson had nine kills in 38 swingstheyre not afraid to set hereight digs, and four blocks. The night before, when BYU knocked off Florida State, Hamson had a whopping 30 kills in 63yes, 63attack attempts and hit .397. She also had 10 digs and five blocks.

Not that she’s alone. Against Nebraska, 6’0″ outside hitter Tambre Nobles had 10 kills in 34 swings, and All-American Alexa Gray 11 in 29.

Afterward, BYU coach Shawn Olmstead was giddy, having to compose himself just to execute the post-match handshake with Nebraska counterpart John Cook.

“This is what I said before the match. I knew Penn State was in, Texas was in, and Stanford was up big, Olmstead said.

“I told the girls: Penn State, Stanford, Texas. Who does everybody think is going to win this match? Nebraska. Nebraska is the fourth name that everyone out there is going to think will win.

The girls just jumped out of their seats and got fired up, said Olmstead. And they played that way. They werent just going to lay down and die. Those kids just went after it.

By the way, of BYU’s four losses, one was was in five sets to Washington, one in four to Colorado State, and one in five to San Diego. Inexplicably, the Cougars lost to Santa Clara in three in late October but have won 12 in a row since.

BYU’s national-semifinal opponent Texas will make its third straight trip to the final fourthe Longhorns won it all in 2012and sixth in seven years. Texas (27-2) had losses only in midseason to Oklahoma and to Florida to end the regular season.

“The day before this [regional final] match is always the worst 24 hours as a coach because there’s so much riding on it, a relieved UT coach Jerritt Elliott said after the Longhorns defeat of North Carolina.

I went for a walk after [the regional semifinal match when Texas beat Colorado State in three] and reflected on the players before that helped create this. It’s remarkable. It’s a tribute to the young women that we have in here. We’ve got a family atmosphere here and I’m very proud of it.”

The Texas roster is loaded with All-American seniors Haley Eckerman and Khat Bell, both of whom were stalwarts on the 2012 title team, and do-everything juniors Amy Neal and Molly McCage.

Texas won the regional final over North Carolina 31-29 in the fourth set, a battle that included more than its share of heart-stopping rallies and gutsy defensive plays on both sides.

“I think it just showed heart, it showed both teams were not going to give up and we were going to keep going, said Eckerman, who led the Longhorns with 14 kills. In the end we just looked each other in the eye and knowing OK, next point’, we can’t keep living in the past, we have to move forward and we just have to go for it and give it our all, and that’s what we did.

Every person, whether it was on the bench, the coaches, our staff, everybody just gave it all for us.

And who knows, maybe Elliott will get more respect from ESPN when Texas is on Thursday night. On Saturday, the graphic for his name as the match started identified him as Jerry Elliott.

Stanford and Penn State played each other at Stanford on September
7, with the Cardinal taking a tough five-set win (Read our coverage of that match). But to get to Thursday’s rematch, Stanford had to take care of Pac-12 foe Oregon State and then the SEC’s Florida, while Penn State had to not only beat UCLA, but then No. 4 seed, Big Ten rival Wisconsin.

Stanford is 33-1, with its only loss coming at Washington at the end of Pac-12 play. In the regional rounds, it went four with Oregon State and it wasnt unfair to expect a five-setter with Florida, but the Cardinal chomped the Gators in what turned out to a relatively lopsided three.

Stanford, which won NCAA titles in in 1992, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2001, and 2004, returns to the national-semifinals for the first time since 2008.

No one on our team has been to the final four, so it will be a new experience for us and it is something that weve strived for this whole time,” said Jordan Burgess, a Stanford junior outside who had a team-high 12 kills and nine digs against Florida.

“Weve always wanted to win a national championship. Getting past the elite eight has been something that has been very hard for us, so we are so excited and super proud of our whole team.

The Cardinal took over the No. 1 spot in the poll after it beat Penn State in that early season match, never relinquishing the top spot again.

The college-volleyball world has to be drooling over the rematch as Penn State (34-3) goes for its sixth title in eight years. The Nittany Lions had to rally against Wisconsin in the regional final, which was dealt a cruel blow in the first set when sophomore setter Lauren Carlini sprained her ankle. The Big Ten Player of the Year had to leave the court briefly and her team was still able to win the first set, but when she returned to the match in game two she was clearly hindered the rest of the way.

Penn State, which lost in conference play to Nebraska and Illinois, won its only regular-season meeting with Wisconsin. To advance, it had to beat two Big Ten teams, first Ohio State and then, in a rematch of last year’s national-championship match against the Badgers, relied on a balanced attack to win in four on Saturday night. Junior Aiyana Whitney had a match-high 16 kills, freshman Simone Lee came off the bench for 12seven in the second set aloneand another freshman, Haleigh Washington, had 10.

Penn State is back in the final four for the 12th time and has played for it all on 10 of those trips. Both Penn State and Stanford have each won it all six times.

Were thrilled to continue our season for another week, said 36th-year Penn State coach Russ Rose, who won titles in 1999, four in a row from 2007-10, and then again last year.

Which most of the college-volleyball world cant say. The weekend saw the end of some of the game’s most prolific players, including Washington’s Krista Vansant, Oregon’s Liz Brenner, Illinois Liz McMahon, UCLA’s Karsta Lowe, and Chaniel Nelson of North Carolina.

Everybody starts the year with the same goals and ambitions, Rose said. When they say it’s a grind, it’s hard. Penn State is not a real easy program. I dont want it to be easy. I want it to be a grind, I want [my players] to understand that it’s hard to be in a position to do this.

Which might be a good time to recall what Hancock said after Penn State lost that match back in September to Stanford.

She knew.

Later on in the year it’s really going to get interesting, Hancock predicted.

I think [both teams are] going to get better and I like what I saw from my people. So if I play better were going to get better and were going to be a tough team to beat.

At this point in the season it appears they all are.

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