Rematches highlight national semifinals
Penn State and Texas will forever be linked because of their epic 2009 showdown in what was arguably the most exciting championship match in the history of the NCAA Division I Women's Volleyball Tournament.
The five-set thriller will be remembered not only for the Nittany Lions wiping out a two-set deficit to win their record third straight national title, but for Destinee Hooker's 34-kill performance that made the Longhorns' outside hitter the first Most Outstanding Player from the second-place team since PSU's Lauren Cacciamani shared the honor with Long Beach State's Misty May in 1998.
The two teams will square off in Thursday's first national semifinal (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. However, the 2010 season has been dramatically different than the previous year when it was almost a foregone conclusion that No. 1 Penn State and No. 2 Texas would play in the championship match.
While the uniforms are the same, the teams are significantly different than a year ago.
This year, both teams played through some adversity while fighting their way back to the national semifinals. The Nittany Lions knew they would have to replace All-Americans Alisha Glass and Megan Hodge, and their quest for a fifth national crown got tougher when honorable mention All-American Darcy Dorton suffered a season-ending knee injury during the spring. The Longhorns had to fill the positions occupied by All-Americans Ashley Engle and Hooker and lost freshman setter Hannah Allison for part of the season with an ankle injury.
After losing in four sets at Nebraska on Oct. 2, Texas was 8-5 overall and 3-1 in the Big 12.
By Oct. 9, Penn State had dropped consecutive matches to Purdue and Indiana and was 13-4 overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten. But there is so much talent and athleticism on both teams, it was only a matter of time before each team developed the chemistry needed to live up to its own high standards. Since early October, the Nittany Lions and Longhorns have combined for 36-1 record and have won 110 of 128 sets.
But only one will advance to Saturday's championship match.
The key to Thursday's showdown, the first time in tournament history the finalists from the previous season will play in the semifinals the following year, will likely be Penn State's size and depth at the net versus Texas' balance and athleticism.
The Nittany Lions, who have an average height of more than 6-foot-3 along the front row in most rotations, ranked fifth in the nation in blocks, averaging 3.01 per set, and held their opponents to a .131 hitting percentage. Senior middle blockers Fatima Balza and Arielle Wilson average 1.33 and 1.15 blocks per set, respectively, while 6-foot-5 Blair Brown averaged just below a block per set.
Texas is even more balanced this season, making it harder to defend. Senior outside hitter Juliann Faucette averages a team-leading 3.92 kills per set, while junior middle blocker Rachael Adams and junior outside hitter Amber Roberson average just under 3.0 kills. Adams led the nation with a .448 hitting percentage, thanks in part to her ability to go over nearly every block she encounters. The Longhorns rank fourth with their .311 team hitting percentage.
Conversely, Penn State ranked second in the nation with a .314 team hitting percentage. Texas averages 2.47 blocks per set. Opponents hit .189 against Texas.
Experience could be a slight advantage for the Longhorns, who have five players who played in all five sets during last year's title match, including junior setter Michelle Kocher. The Nittany Lions also have a quintet of players who participated in the match, but seniors Alyssa D'Errico and Cathy Quilico play only in the back row and starting setter Kristin Carpenter appeared briefly in two sets.
For Penn State and Texas, the players may change but the expectations remain the same.
Volleyball fans can expect another dramatic confrontation on Thursday.
Cal vs. USC
California has recorded many firsts with senior setter Carli Lloyd leading the way, but to earn the program's first appearance in the championship match of the NCAA Tournament, the Golden Bears will have to beat USC for the first time this season in Thursday's second semifinal (ESPN2, 9:30 p.m. ET).
The Trojans are one of two teams to defeat Cal this season, and they did it twice. The question is: Can the Women of Troy make it three in a row against the only team to not lose a set during its first four matches of the tournament?
The Bears are hoping to become the fourth Pac-10 champion to capture the national championship in the same season, but only Stanford (1999) advanced to the title match in a year in which it shared the conference title. USC is trying to become the first team to finish outside the top two in the Pac-10 standings to reach the national championship match.
California completed its trifecta against Washington in the championship match of the Seattle Regional. Now it is hoping to prevent USC from accomplishing the same feat. The Women of Troy lost both regular-season matches against Stanford but came from behind to defeat the Cardinal in five sets in the championship match of the Dayton Regional.
To slow down the Trojans' highly-effective outside hitters, Cal will need to live up to its No. 3 ranking in blocks per set. Three bears -- Kat Brown and Shannon Hawari (middle hitters) and Lloyd -- average more than one block per set. Brown, Hawari and sophomore outside hitter Correy Johnson each had a hand in seven blocks during the five-set loss to USC at Galen Center on Oct. 9 but combined for only seven block assists in the 3-1 loss to USC on Nov. 5 in Berkeley.
During the Trojans' victories over the Bears, junior outside hitter Alex Jupiter averaged 4.8 kills per set and hit .229, while Falyn Fonoimoana, the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, hit .235 and averaged 3.8 kills per set. Jupiter ranks 13th in the nation in kills per set, thanks to junior setter Kendall Bateman, who is third in assists at 12.41 per set. As a team, the Trojans are sixth with a .295 hitting percentage.
Not to be outdone, Cal ranks third with a .313 team hitting percentage and sixth in kills per set, averaging 14.63. Junior outside hitter Tarah Murrey is third, averaging 5.16 kills per set, while Lloyd is eighth, averaging 11.82 assists.
Both teams are young. The Bears play three upperclassmen -- senior defensive specialist Meagan Schmitt, Lloyd and Murrey. USC counters with three freshmen and a sophomore among its eight-player rotation. The Trojans' only senior is defensive specialist Geena Urango.
With teams so evenly matched, the winner likely will be determined by a handful of points.
That's why Cal is confident with the ball in Lloyd's hands.
Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.