Penn State's seniors secure legacy
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- There were plenty of moments when this could have derailed. That's what is so breathtaking about it. That through all the worthy opponents, the injuries, the back-against-the-wall points, the losses to graduation, the expectations and potential distractions, Penn State volleyball has managed to outdo itself.
Last year, the Nittany Lions became the first team to win the Division I women's volleyball championship three consecutive times. This year, despite losing two first-team All-Americans and seeing the end of their remarkable 109-match winning streak, the Lions are the ones roaring the loudest at the season's conclusion again.
Penn State took its fourth consecutive title Saturday night at the Sprint Center, sweeping Cal 25-20, 27-25, 25-20. In the second set, Penn State fought off two set points, successfully blocking kill attempts by the Bears' big hitters, Tarah Murrey and Adrienne Gehan.
Then Penn State senior Blair Brown was able to finish off the second set with two kills. And although the Bears later said they really didn't feel the match was essentially over at that point, they were left with a wall to scale that was simply too big against Penn State.
The final kill of the match came from freshman middle blocker Katie Slay. When you consider that another rookie, Deja McClendon, was named the Final Four's most outstanding player, and freshmen Ariel Scott, Maddie Martin and Ali Longo also saw time in the NCAA title match you realize Penn State is also loaded for the foreseeable future.
Yet no class will be able to finish any better than this year's seniors, who leave Happy Valley with four titles -- even though they couldn't quite believe it when Saturday's final ended.
Penn State By The Numbers
How impressive is Penn State's feat? Here are a few stats to put it in perspective:
• Russ Rose won his fifth national championship, the most of any head coach in NCAA Division I women's volleyball history.
• The Nittany Lions hit .316 in this Final Four, the best hitting percentage since the sport went to the 25-point rally-scoring system in 2001.
• Arielle Wilson finished her four years with a .468 hitting percentage, the best in Division I history for a career. Her senior class had a record of 142-7, including perfect 38-0 seasons in 2008 and 2009.
• Deja McClendon became just the second freshman to win Final Four most outstanding player honors, joining Stanford's Kerri Walsh.
• The Lions have won a record 24 consecutive NCAA tournament matches.
"I can't say enough about how excited we are to be four-time national champions," said Brown, who with 18 kills, 10 digs and 4 block assists just as easily could have been the most outstanding player. "When will I really understand it? I don't know. It's still surreal that we won three in a row. I remember winning last year and it being just as exciting as the first one, when I'd never won it before.
"I went home last year, and everyone was like, 'Great job winning three.' But then you go back to the gym to get ready for the next one. So maybe now that I don't go back to the gym to train with Penn State volleyball, that's when I'll really understand it."
To help put what Penn State has done in perspective, consider that UConn's and Tennessee's women's basketball teams, despite their respective periods of dominance, have not won four consecutive NCAA titles.
Also consider that it wasn't until Penn State won the women's volleyball title in 1999 that a school east of the Mississippi River had finished atop that sport. Of the first 18 NCAA titles, 16 went to schools in California or Hawaii. The exceptions were Texas and Nebraska.
Penn State lost the NCAA championship match three times before its '99 breakthrough. And now the school has become the standard-bearer in the sport.
"I've had terrific support and a great staff," Penn State coach Russ Rose said. "I remember many years ago winning our first match against a California team. It was 32 years ago.
"The landscape has changed. The Big Ten Conference is a great conference. You get better in the Big Ten because every match you play, it's a grind."
Of course, the same would be said of the Pac-10, a league whose schools have produced 13 NCAA women's volleyball titles. Cal, which had not lost a set in this NCAA tournament coming into the final, was trying to become the fifth Pac-10 team to win a national championship.
"They scouted well, and they knew what they wanted to do," Cal senior setter Carli Lloyd said of the Lions. "We usually have a lot of fun together and play as a team. We were struggling for a little bit with that."
And just when it seemed the Bears were on the verge of things clicking and tying the match, that's when Penn State came through on the pressure points in that critical second set. Arielle Wilson and Kristin Carpenter combined to stuff Cal's first set-point attempt, and Slay and Carpenter blocked the second.
"The seniors on the team did a really great job of keeping us relaxed in the match," the freshman Slay said. "So when I knew I was going to be on the floor in those key moments, I didn't really feel nervous because I knew I had a great cast around me."
That Penn State cast, of course, has changed thanks to graduation and injuries during these four championship runs. But seniors Brown, Wilson and Alyssa D'Errico have been important components all four years.
As freshmen, they were on a team that went to Sacramento for the Final Four and defeated two nearby California teams there, Cal and Stanford. The latter was a 3-2 victory in the final against the six-time NCAA champ Cardinal.
In 2008, the Lions survived one of the most epic matches in their history, beating Nebraska 3-2 in the semifinals in Omaha, Neb., in front of a sea-of-red pro-Huskers crowd. Then they swept Stanford in the final.
Last year in Tampa, Fla., Penn State beat Hawaii 3-1 in the semifinals, setting up a final with the Texas that everyone knew would be a slugfest. The Lions went down 2-0 in that match but fought back for a 3-2 win and a third championship.
This year, no one -- not even staunch Penn State fans -- would argue that the NCAA selection committee gave the Lions the easiest draw into the Final Four, which was made even easier because they were hosting the early-round and regional matches.
Still, they had to take care of that business. And after four consecutive tournament victories -- which extended their home winning streak to an NCAA-record 94 in a row -- they came to Kansas City, then left with two sweeps and another trophy.
Brown missed Penn State's December graduation ceremony, held this weekend, because she was busy at the Final Four. However, the school awarded her a diploma before the Lions left State College, having an individual ceremony at a Penn State practice last week.
"I couldn't ask for a better graduation ceremony than to be at South Gym, where I spent a majority of my time in college," Brown said. "And my teammates got to be there, so I celebrated it with them and my coaches."
She now hands the torch off to players like the amazingly talented McClendon, who had 16 kills Saturday. Penn State also will return Carpenter, a sophomore who set two terrific matches in this Final Four.
"The legacy we leave, we don't want it to be about numbers," Brown said, although the numbers are staggering. "The legacy we want to leave is the program history. The tradition of working hard every day in practice, because that's how you get here."
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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