Penn State three-peat a real possibility
5 Burning Questions on the 2009 women's volleyball season
Penn State made its case for being the most dominant team in women's volleyball history when it won the 2008 national championship with a 38-0 record and nearly went the entire season without losing a set. Now the Nittany Lions have the opportunity to become the first program to win three consecutive titles.
There also are other compelling stories worth watching as the season unfolds. With the first serve just around the corner, here are 5 Burning Questions to start the 2009 season.
1. Can Penn State make it three in a row?
For most programs, losing to graduation a pair of first-team All-Americans the caliber of outside hitter Nicole Fawcett (the 2008 AVCA Player of the Year) and middle blocker Christa Harmotto (who led the nation in hitting percentage and was third in blocks per set) would be devastating. But Penn State isn't like most programs. The Nittany Lions still will have four All-Americans on the court in senior setter Alisha Glass, senior outside hitter Megan Hodge, junior opposite hitter Blair Brown and junior middle blocker Arielle Wilson.
Three players who could play prominent roles for PSU are junior middle blocker Fatima Balza (a National Junior College Athletic Association All-American at Western Nebraska Junior College), sophomore Katie Kabbes (a 6-foot-5 outside hitter) and freshman outside hitter Darcy Dorton (PrepVolleyball.com's 2008 National Player of the Year).
The Nittany Lions have not lost a match since Sept. 15, 2007, and will begin the 2009 season riding a 64-match winning streak. Their first test will come Saturday at No. 20 Saint Louis, and a Sept. 26 showdown at No. 10 Illinois will be a significant hurdle in PSU's quest for a seventh consecutive Big Ten title.
Bottom line: Penn State has all the ingredients necessary to become the first program to win three consecutive national championships.
2. Which team is the biggest threat to Penn State's reign?
One look at its nonconference schedule, and it is easy to see expectations are extremely high at No. 2 Texas. Jerritt Elliott's squad will face five consecutive ranked opponents to open its season -- No. 23 Long Beach State, No. 15 San Diego, No. 6 California, No. 7 Hawaii and No. 20 Saint Louis -- and then play a pair of exhibition matches against the Italian National A2 Team before opening its Big 12 schedule against Baylor on Sept. 16.
The Longhorns have three All-Americans among the five starters and libero who return in 2009, including senior opposite hitter Ashley Engle, senior outside hitter Destinee Hooker and junior outside hitter Juliann Faucette, the 2007 AVCA National Freshman of the Year.
Elliott delivered a top-five recruiting class for the fourth consecutive season and landed PrepVolleyball.com's No. 1 recruit, Bailey Webster, a 6-foot-3 outside hitter from Baltimore.
If Texas and Penn State play for the national championship, the Horns might be able to take advantage of some inside information provided by new assistant coach and former Nittany Lion Salima Rockwell, who spent the past three seasons on the coaching staff at her alma mater.
3. Can the Pac-10 return to the top?
There is no denying the Pac-10 is the strongest conference, top to bottom. In fact, the Pac-10 has more teams ranked in the top 14 than any other conference has in the entire poll. But for a conference that owns 13 of the 28 national titles awarded by the NCAA since 1982, three seasons without a championship seems like a long time.
Washington was tabbed as the team to beat in the Pac-10, and any team that comes out on top of volleyball's most talented conference is a threat to win it all. The Huskies return five of six starters and their libero in 2009, including a trio of All-Americans in senior libero Tamari Miyashiro, junior setter Jenna Hagglund and junior outside hitter Becky Perry.
History also might be on UW's side. The previous two times current Pac-10 members went three or more seasons without a national title, it was the conference's most recent national champion that put an end to the drought.
UCLA won its first crown in 1984 while competing in the Western Collegiate Athletic Association and gave the Pac-10 its first official title six years later in 1990. Stanford finished on top in 1997 and again in 2001. The last Pac-10 team to win the national championship was Washington in 2005.
4. Which program could win its first national championship?
Florida has earned seven trips to the national semifinals and advanced to the championship match once, but this could be the year Mary Wise and the Gators finally win their elusive national championship.
UF features a trio of sophomores -- setter/opposite hitter Kelly Murphy, the 2008 AVCA National Freshman of the Year, and outside hitters Kristy Jaeckel and Colleen Ward. The Gators were tabbed as favorites to win the Southeastern Conference title for a 19th consecutive season.
Florida could reach the Final Four without ever leaving the Sunshine State. The Gators have played host to the first- or second-round matches in 17 of the past 18 seasons and have an all-time NCAA tournament record of 38-4 at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center, one of four regional sites for this year's tournament.
The 2009 championship will be played at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla.
5. Which unranked team could move up quickly?
Western Michigan returns all six starters and its libero from the team that posted a 28-7 record and was knocked out of the NCAA tournament by Penn State in the regional semifinal.
The Broncos open the season Saturday with matches against No. 7 Hawaii, No. 9 UCLA and No. 25 Santa Clara at the Chevron Rainbow Wahine Invitational in Honolulu.
WMU was a fixture in the postseason from 1982 to 1989 but has made just two appearances since then. Not only would a victory over either Hawaii or UCLA help the Broncos jump into the top 25 for the first time since 1998, it would bolster WMU's case when the tournament selections are made in December.
Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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