Penn State aims to keep streak alive
The Penn State volleyball program is synonymous with record-setting winning streaks.
The Nittany Lions own the NCAA record of 109 consecutive victories.
They've won a record three straight national championships.
And if Penn State extends its current winning streak to 14 matches this weekend at Iowa and Minnesota, it will win its eighth consecutive Big Ten title.
Just being in that position is remarkable because the Nittany Lions had to replace so much firepower from last year's undefeated national champion team.
Setter Alisha Glass and outside hitter Megan Hodge earned first-team All-America honors prior to joining the United States National Team after graduation, and sophomore outside hitter Darcy Dorton, an honorable mention All-American, suffered a knee injury during the spring and missed the entire season.
Despite having first-team All-Americans Blair Brown and Arielle Wilson back at opposite hitter and middle blocker, respectively, and an abundance of young talent, head coach Russ Rose wasn't convinced this year's squad would be able to win the conference again this season.
"At the beginning of the season, I picked us fourth," Rose said. "I thought Illinois was the team to beat and that Minnesota and Michigan were going to be really balanced veteran teams. Illinois had a tough injury with Laura DeBruler being out, and we can relate to that because Darcy Dorton is not playing, and she is a very key player both as a player and an emotional leader for our team."
The challenge became even greater after Penn State opened its conference schedule with a 3-3 record. The Nittany Lions, who had lost only five matches since the beginning of the 2006 season, dropped their first conference match in five sets at Illinois, and after bouncing back with three straight wins, lost back-to-back matches at Purdue and Indiana.
PSU was down, but definitely not out.
"I told the players if we won the rest of our matches, I thought we'd win the conference championship," Rose said. "That was a bold statement to make because at that point Illinois had no losses. You hope to get yourself back into a conference race when you stumble early, but there's no guarantee. There's so much of it that's out of your control."
Talent was never an issue, as evidenced by Penn State's victory at Florida during the third week of the season. But a lack of consistency on the offensive side of the net prompted Rose to make a bold move, and he decided to take the redshirt off freshman Ariel Scott to add strength on the outside. It also meant Dorton would not have to push her rehabilitation in the hope of helping the team late in the season.
"When I elected to bring Ariel out of her redshirt, I indicated to Darcy there would be no reason for us to play her late in the season even though she could make an impact on this team," Rose said. "I didn't think it was in our best interest to have four or five players at the same position when you can only play two or three of them."
The move paid immediate dividends when Scott put away nine kills in her collegiate debut, a 3-1 victory over Minnesota. During her first 12 matches, she averaged 2.25 kills per set to give PSU an offensive threat on the left side to go along with fellow freshman Deja McClendon.
The Nittany Lions also got another glimpse of the future when freshman middle blocker Katie Slay had a dominating weekend at Michigan and Michigan State, hitting .593 with 17 kills on 27 attempts with only one error and blocking 16 shots during a pair of crucial road victories.
That performance may have lit a fire in senior middle blocker Fatima Balza, who hit .303 and had a hand in 22 blocks as Penn State swept its last four opponents.
"Katie is a young player and she's going to have a bright future, but I'm not intoxicated by success," Rose said. "Just because you had a great weekend doesn't mean come Monday you're my girl. I want to see things every day. She had a great week and a couple of days later, I thought Fatima was playing a little bit harder.
Suddenly, the Nittany Lions had options in every rotation based on who was playing well or who gave them the ability to take advantage of individual matchups with their opponents.
"The players don't know who I'm going to start at a couple of positions because I'm not sure who I'm going to start," Rose said. "I look at opponents with different matchups in mind. So I don't know if it means we're playing better or playing our best, but we're finding ways to win."
The Nittany Lions clawed their way into a tie atop the conference standings with a three-set victory over Illinois on Nov. 13, part of a 12-match winning streak in which PSU won 36 of 39 sets. With victories over Ohio State and Northwestern the following week, combined with Minnesota's win at Illinois, Penn State found itself in a familiar position -- sole possession of first place.
"The Big Ten is a grind," Rose said. "It's a really long season. Playing home and away is the best way to indicate who the champion is because it entails 20 matches. The Big Ten is a very competitive conference because of the quality of players on each of the teams. At least in our case, there are players on every team that we recruited."
Not only are the Nittany Lions on the verge of extending their streak of Big Ten titles, there's a strong possibility they will set an NCAA record for consecutive home victories when they play host to the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Penn State currently shares the record of 90 wins with Nebraska.
With Rec Hall as one of four regional sites, there's a good chance the Nittany Lions will advance to the national semifinals for the fourth season in a row and the ninth time in program history.
"I know we've won championships with not our best team, and we've lost championships with what I thought was our best team," Rose said. "We'll do like everybody else. We'll get excited about the pairings and I'll spend zero time worrying about the things I can't control, like who has the better seed or who is hosting, and we'll go about our business and do our best to prepare and go out and play.
"If we get four matches at Rec Hall, then I'll be happy that I'm not traveling around the country during the holiday season."
At least until it's time to go to Kansas City.
Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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