PSU volleyball makes history again
TAMPA, Fla. -- Penn State women's volleyball has followed a mantra this season: One game at a time. Despite the numbers, streaks and records the Nittany Lions have carried on their backs, they refused to focus beyond what lay immediately in front of them.
They entered the season's final match Saturday night as the NCAA tournament's No. 1 seed against 2-seeded Texas with much at stake: a 101-game win streak, an undefeated season, an elusive third consecutive national championship and a record 18 consecutive NCAA tournament victories. And for a while before a crowd of 12,087 inside the St. Pete Times Forum, it looked as though that all might end.
But records aren't created from nothing, and the Lions rallied from a two-set deficit to win their third consecutive national championship in five sets, 22-25, 20-25, 25-23, 25-21, 15-13.
Texas, the underdog that hadn't won a volleyball national championship since 1988, came out the more aggressive team, battling through long rallies, 11 tie scores and six lead changes to win the first set. Tournament MVP Destinee Hooker dominated the second set almost single-handedly, leading Texas to a two-set lead. Penn State hadn't lost a set by more than two points all season -- and had lost only six sets total before the tournament.
But then, Penn State coach Russ Rose affirmed why he's won more than 1,000 matches, and the Nittany Lions showed why they haven't lost since 2007. They became the more aggressive, controlled squad, as Blair Brown and Megan Hodge found holes in Texas' spread and forced the Longhorns into errors. Junior Cathy Quilico, the shortest Nittany Lion at 5-foot-1, dug out improbable balls on the back line. And Penn State battled back, taking the next two sets.
In the decisive fifth set, with almost the entire crowd on its feet, the courtside ESPN cameraman telling his wire controller, "This really is exciting!" and an improbable 10 tie scores, a kill by Hodge gave Penn State the final set 15-13, and the Nittany Lions took the championship for their 102nd consecutive victory. They also became one of only three teams in NCAA women's volleyball history to claim four national titles.
More records for the books, more streaks to continue and, as Penn State senior setter Alisha Glass said with a laugh after the match, "a lot of pressure for them next year, for sure."
But Saturday night was about winning an unprecedented third straight NCAA title.
"I blacked out; I was asking everyone after the match what happened on the last play, who got the winning point," Hodge said when asked how she felt in the seconds after victory -- a win sealed by her own play. "We've done a lot of silly things this season as a team as far as not stepping up, but tonight we fought. We knew we'd have to do that to win."
Initially, Penn State's fight looked as if it might not come. The team appeared flat-footed and without an answer to Hooker's relentless attack. The 6-4 senior outside hitter had 11 kills for 11 points in the second set alone.
"She had 34 kills, and she had 38 of 88 points," Rose said of Hooker. "I was disappointed we didn't do a better job getting the tip because you'd like to think that was something you could get. But as the players indicated, she hits from such a high contact point, and she kept going hard the whole time. She did what we thought she'd do, but it's a team game, and we had some ideas of what we thought we needed to do to have success."
Between the second and third sets, Rose, who says he doesn't like to focus on stats, reminded his team of an important one: The last time it had been down two sets yet still won the match was against Texas on Sept. 8, 2006. (The last time the Lions were down 2-0 since was a three-set loss to Stanford in 2007.)
Texas' early tenacity still showed in the third set, but the Longhorns couldn't dominate or control the tempo the way they did in the first two. As Texas senior setter Ashley Engle said of the first two sets, "I think we were playing pretty perfect. I think we stunned Penn State; they definitely weren't playing their usual match. We knew coming out of the locker room that they were going to be on fire."
The Nittany Lions transformed Rose's motivation into action, emerging in the third with blocking power and several key shots by freshman Darcy Dorton and junior Arielle Wilson. Quilico dug out balls in the middle back, and suddenly, Penn State had a shot.
Junior libero Alyssa D'Errico, too, saved many Hooker shots from another marker in the kill column.
"I think D'Errico doesn't get a lot of credit," Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. "The kid's a fighter. She has a tremendous amount of passion, and she kind of willed them to get on the road to competing."
That determination carried over to the fourth set, which had nine tie scores and two lead changes before a Hodge kill gave the Nittany Lions the set. Hodge became just the fifth player in Division I history to be named first-team All-American four years in a row and also was named the American Volleyball Coaches Association's National Player of the Year for 2009.
After Hodge's final kill, the entire team erupted into a circle of hugs, laughter and tears. Dorton held three fingers in the air as she hugged Hodge, reminding everyone present of the three consecutive titles claimed by Penn State, as Texas players and fans looked on, stunned.
These two teams had never met in the NCAA tournament, yet the matchup had been highly anticipated throughout much of the season. The fourth NCAA championship for Rose's career ties him for the most all time among Division I coaches with John Dunning (Pacific/Stanford) and Don Shaw (Stanford).
"It's something that you look back on and just think it is amazing," Glass said. "It has been amazing for us to be a part of it. This was our goal. This was what we wanted from the beginning of the season. We just would not let it go, so we are really happy that we came out here and got what we wanted."
Anna K. Clemmons is a writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.