Commentary

Penn State, Stanford, Texas and UCLA are strong contenders in 2008

Originally Published: August 15, 2008
By Dave Reed | Special to ESPN.com

Defending titles is a way of life for the Penn State volleyball team.

After all, the Nittany Lions have won five consecutive Big Ten championships and 11 of 17 (eight outright and three shared) since joining the conference in 1991.

[+] EnlargeChrista Harmotto
AP Photo/Rich PedroncelliChrista Harmotto, a first-team All-American and Big Ten player of the year, is back for her senior season.

But for just the second time in the program's dominating history, Penn State will begin a season as the defending national champion.

When Penn State held off Stanford in five games to win the 2007 title in Sacramento, the Nittany Lions became one of only eight programs to win multiple NCAA Division I championships.

Now, Penn State has an opportunity to become part of an even more exclusive group by joining Hawaii (1982-83), Pacific (1985-86), UCLA (1990-91), Stanford (1996-97) and USC (2002-03) as the only schools to win back-to-back titles.

"We had a great run at the end of last year," said Russ Rose, who is entering his 30th season as coach at Penn State. "We were playing really well into the NCAA tournament and through the NCAA tournament. We're going to have to work hard to get ourselves back into that area of performance."

With four All-Americans and the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year among the Nittany Lions' seven returning starters, the coaches who vote in the CBS College Sports Network/AVCA Division I Poll clearly see them as the team to beat. Penn State received 59 of 60 first-place votes to finish ahead of No. 2 Stanford and No. 3 Texas.

That's almost identical to the position Nebraska was in last season, when almost everyone in the college volleyball world was prepared to crown the Huskers national champions before the first match of the season. Rose will waste little time pointing out what happened to Nebraska if he senses his team isn't willing to do what is necessary to stay at the top of its game.

"Not only were they the consensus No. 1 team, we played them and they beat us easily," Rose said. "I think our players are aware of how quickly things can change."

The Nittany Lions will feature a pair of first-team All-Americans on the left side, senior Nicole Fawcett and junior Megan Hodge, who averaged 5.30 and 5.28 points per set, respectively, in 2007.

Senior Christa Harmotto, a first-team All-American and Big Ten player of the year, and Arielle Wilson, the reigning Big Ten freshman of the year, provide a dominating presence at the net. Harmotto finished last season with a conference-record .492 hitting percentage, and the duo accounted for nearly 3.5 total blocks per set.

Blair Brown added 1.91 kills per set and just less than a block per set on the right side in 2007, earning a spot on the Big Ten's all-freshman team. Penn State also has experience in the back row, where senior Roberta Holehouse returns after leading the team with 471 digs.

The offense will be ignited by second-team All-American Alisha Glass, who led Penn State to a .350 hitting percentage while averaging 13.02 assists per set as a sophomore. During her first two seasons, Penn State posted a 66-5 record (.930). Rose said his junior setter continues to make significant improvements, which should be cause for concern for any other team with championship aspirations.

The Nittany Lions will begin their title defense in Honolulu with three consecutive matches against NCAA tournament teams at the Hawaiian Airlines Classic. Penn State opens with Hawaii, then plays UCLA and Ohio with less than 24 hours between matches.

Penn State is one of only two programs (Stanford is the other) to have earned a spot in all 27 NCAA tournaments and the only school east of the Mississippi River to win a national championship. The Nittany Lions almost certainly will play their first four NCAA matches at Rec Hall, making it highly likely they will advance to Qwest Center Omaha and a seventh appearance in the national semifinals.

Past successes shouldn't dictate future efforts. … We have some talented players, but we also lost 20 years of experience with graduation and defections from last year's team. It's not like it's the same team.

-- Penn State coach Russ Rose

"Past successes shouldn't dictate future efforts," said Rose, one of only three active coaches with 900 or more career victories. "We're going to continue to work hard and do the things I think are important with this team. We have some talented players, but we also lost 20 years of experience with graduation and defections from last year's team. It's not like it's the same team."

Penn State might not have the same team, but it will take the same approach and expectations into the 2008 season. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the Nittany Lions will be playing in Omaha on Dec. 18.

With PSU penciled into one national semifinal, here are three other teams that are likely to join the Nittany Lions at Qwest Center.

Stanford


No program can match Stanford's consistency. Since winning the first of its record six national championships in 1992, the Cardinal have not gone more than four consecutive seasons between titles. Coach John Dunning has four national titles to his credit -- two at Pacific and two at Stanford -- and has led the Cardinal to the national championship match in three of the past four seasons.

Paced by senior middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo (the 2007 AVCA National Player of the Year), senior outside hitter Cynthia Barboza (a first-team All-American) and sophomore outside hitter Alix Klineman (a second-team All-American), Stanford has more than enough firepower to earn its third consecutive appearance in the title match.

Akinradewo led the nation with a .499 hitting percentage in 2007, the second-highest mark in NCAA history. Along with Barboza and Klineman, she spent the offseason training with the U.S. national team, playing in the final round of the FIVB World Grand Prix in Yokohama, Japan, and a three-match exhibition series against top-ranked Brazil.

The primary concern for the Cardinal will be finding a successor for three-time All-American setter Bryn Kehoe. The early returns suggest junior Joanna Evans and sophomore Cassidy Lichtman are more than capable of running the Stanford attack.

Texas


After Jerritt Elliott took control of the Texas volleyball program in 2001, everyone knew it was only a matter of time before he put the Longhorns in contention to win a national championship. His masterful recruiting was the foundation of USC's back-to-back championships in 2002 and 2003, and it also could pay off here with a national title.

Elliott's past three recruiting classes all were rated No. 2 in the nation, and each included impact players who received national honors. In 2006, Ashley Engle was a second-team All-American. Last year, Juliann Faucette was a first-team All-American and AVCA freshman of the year, while sophomore outside hitter Destinee Hooker was named to the second team. Also returning is junior middle blocker Lauren Paolini, who earned third-team honors in 2007.

Expect that tradition to be carried on by Rachael Adams, a product of Mount Notre Dame High School in Cincinnati, who owns a 36-inch vertical leap. She is a two-time member of the U.S. Youth National Team and led the USA to a gold medal at the 2006 NORCECA Championship.

The Horns will have to replace setter Michelle Moriarty, a two-time All-American, but playing host to a regional at Gregory Gymnasium will help Texas earn its first appearance in the national semifinals since 1995, when it lost to Nebraska in the championship match.

UCLA


This is where it gets tricky.

Several teams -- like California, Cal Poly, Hawaii, Minnesota and LSU -- return most of their starting lineups from a year ago. It's also hard to pass on traditional powers like Nebraska and USC.

But a veteran setter can make all the difference, and that's why I'm casting my lot with Nellie Spicer and UCLA. It's also worth noting that the Pac-10 has sent at least two teams to the national semifinals in three of the past four seasons.

Spicer, a two-time All-American, led her team to the national semifinals as a sophomore. Her primary weapons include senior outside hitters Kaitlin Sather, who averaged 3.76 kills and 4.36 points per set, and Ali Daley, who averaged 3.69 kills and 4.48 points.

Coach Andy Banachowski added an imposing recruiting class, which includes 6-foot-6 middle blocker/outside hitter Amanda Gil, 6-foot-5 middle blocker Katie Camp and 6-foot-4 outside hitter Sara Sage.

The Bruins recorded their ninth consecutive 20-win season in 2007 and reached the regional final of the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in the past five years. With five starters and the libero returning, 2008 could be the year UCLA wins its first national title since 1991.

Dave Reed covers college sports for ESPN.com.