Volleyball final will be battle of bests
Top teams Penn State and Texas advance to face off in national championship
TAMPA, Fla. -- Some might call it redemption; others might call it "Destinee."
Powered by senior outside hitter Destinee Hooker, second-seeded Texas plowed through 11-seed Minnesota in three sets (25-19, 25-20, 25-15) at St. Pete Times Forum on Thursday night, erasing the memory of last year's semifinal exit against Stanford. The Longhorns' three-set sweep of the Golden Gophers demonstrated their depth going into the championship battle with undefeated, two-time defending champion 1-seed Penn State on Saturday night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2). The Nittany Lions defeated 12-seed Hawaii in four sets (23-25, 25-18, 25-15, 25-18) in Thursday's second match.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Mike CarlsonDestinee Hooker's high jumping skill comes into play on the volleyball court for Texas.
The undersized Gophers, who were in the national semifinals for the third time in program history and the first since advancing to the title match in 2004, proved unable to handle Texas's size, depth and power before a crowd of 10,246 fans.
The Longhorns, Big 12 champions in the regular season with a 19-1 record, are 29-1 going into Saturday's match with an 11-match win streak. In Thursday's sweep, their 24th of the season, the senior line of Hooker, setter Ashley Engle and libero Heather Kisner looked almost impenetrable. Kisner had 21 digs on the night, pushing her past the 400-dig mark on the season and making her the Longhorns' all-time leader in digs in the postseason (193). And the wall of the 6-foot-4 Hooker and 6-3 Engle allowed very few balls to pass.
"They are huge at the net," Minnesota middle blocker Lauren Gibbemeyer said. "If any balls come in close, they just dominate there."
Texas coach Jerritt Elliott gave credit to his players, noting, "Ashley [Engle] can perform every skill at a very high level, and not many setters are that big and physical. Destinee is just a phenomenal athlete with a great learning curve."
Hooker is such a strong athlete that she could have to choose between volleyball and track and field when the next Summer Olympics roll around; she's a three-time outdoor high jump NCAA champion and tied the overall national record with a jump of 6-foot-6 en route to winning the indoor high jump championship last season for Texas' track and field team.
The Horns' senior trio (who, incidentally, make up the winningest class in the history of UT volleyball with a combined 108-16 record and .871 winning percentage) is just one of the many weapons in the Longhorns arsenal. Five-foot-two sophomore Sydney Yogi managed several well-placed aces in the Golden Gophers' open court Thursday.
Yogi said that last year's semifinal loss, in which Texas lost a 2-0 lead over the Cardinal, served as a strong reminder to the Longhorns of where they wanted to be this year.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Mike CarlsonThe Longhorns will play in their first national championship match since 1995.
"The whole season, we've talked about last year and what we need to do to be successful this year, gaining that maturity and confidence," Yogi said.
That began with a start of five consecutive victories against nationally ranked opponents during the first two weeks of the year. They continued to roll, losing only once in the regular season -- to Iowa State, in five sets.
Their offense dominated again Thursday night -- Hooker led all players with 17 kills while Engle hit .500 for 10 kills and 25 assists, her eighth double-double of the season.
That towering line will provide the ultimate matchup for the Nittany Lions' 6-5 redshirt junior Blair Brown and 6-foot senior Alisha Glass, who worked together to stifle Hawaii's offense Thursday.
The Nittany Lions (36-0, 20-0 in the Big Ten) started tenuously against Hawaii and made early unforced errors, dropping the first set. But the Lions' shot percentage jumped from 58 percent to 78 percent in the second set as they cut errors and blocked shots, eventually defeating the Rainbow Wahine in four sets for coach Russ Roses' 1,000th career win. Penn State, whose NCAA win streak since Sept. 15, 2007 has now extended to 102 matches, will try for its third consecutive national championship and second straight undefeated year in an all-or-nothing match between the season's perennial top two seeds.
Penn State has rarely been down early in a match this year, but Glass said the Lions used Hawaii's refusal to back down and subsequent rallies as motivation.
"Great digs and long rallies really inspire a team, and we fed off of that energy and played better because of it," said Glass, who led her team with a .692 attack percentage.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Mike CarlsonPenn State's strong blocking will be key against Texas in the championship.
The Lions' attack is led by senior Megan Hodge, who led the team this year with 5.67 kills per game. Junior defensive specialist Alyssa D'Errico averaged 3.67 digs per set and 1.00 aces. Penn State will also test the Longhorns' offensive power with its strong blocking, powered by junior Fatima Baltza, who has averaged 1.50 blocks per set.
The last time Texas won the national championship was in 1988, which junior Juliann Faucette pointed out was "a long time ago -- I wasn't even born yet." The last time the Horns appeared in the championship game was 1995; they lost to Nebraska, 3-1.
Texas and Penn State mimic each other's tall, physical, attacking style of play while controlling defensively at the net. On Thursday, Penn State had 15 blocks to Hawaii's zero, while Texas had five blocks to Minnesota's two.
"It's going to be a nice aerial show with Megan [Hodge] and Destinee," Rose said. "They'll do exciting things for sure."
Engle pointed out that while Texas is excited about the challenge of playing the best team in the final, there's still work to do.
"Obviously we're really happy -- it's been our goal since I was a freshman, so it feels great to finally get there," Engle said of making it to the championship. "But we're not done; we definitely want to go into that match feeling like we're at a peak and playing our best volleyball. We're ready."
Anna K. Clemmons is a writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.
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