It’s a natural question to ask and comparison to make.
The Penn State women’s volleyball team rolled off four straight national championships before falling short a year ago.
Can they get back to the top? Is this team as good as those other ones?
The real answers start to come tonight, when the top-seeded Nittany Lions (29-2) open the NCAA Tournament by hosting the first two rounds at Rec Hall. Penn State will face Binghamton (13-17) in the night’s second match at 7:30 p.m., after Bowling Green (21-10) and Yale (18-5) meet at 5 p.m. The winners face each other at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the second round, for the final home volleyball match this fall.
“This year we’re feeling really, really good,” junior outside hitter Deja McClendon said. “The team chemistry has really tightened up.”
All that separates Penn State from a fifth national title in six years, and a sixth overall, is six wins.
Unlike those dominating teams of a few years ago, when the Nittany Lions were pounding on opponents, getting to those six wins is going to take a little more time. The teams from a few years ago rarely played a long rally of more than a couple times back and forth over the net, finishing points, and matches, quickly. That team was all about power and sheer domination of will. That also led to winning all but one match all season in 3-0 sweeps.
This year’s squad requires a little more patience, more strategy and a lot more defense.
“Teams are what they are, and when we were a more physical team, we were able to have more success with our strengths,” head coach Russ Rose said. “Our strengths (a few years ago) were that we could overpower people at any position along the net. This is a different team, and the teams we play maybe are a little more physical in certain areas and (have) a little better volleyball players, so we spend a little more time on this team’s ability to play together and focus on the things they do control.”
While it’s a little unfair to compare to the 2008 team — that one had six All-Americans, eight women who would eventually sign at least one pro contract and four who would be on the 20-player Olympic roster last summer — it does give quite the contrast to how points are won.
The 2008 team set the Division I record for single-season hitting percentage, to go along with all those other records for win streaks, by succeeding at a .390 clip. This year’s team is merely hitting .305, which is still third in the nation.
The real proof that matches are lasting longer — certainly witnessed by anyone who has attended any matches this fall at Rec Hall — comes in the 3,672 swings (spike attempts) taken this year through 31 matches against 3,352 swings taken over all 38 matches of the 2008 season. That’s 320 more attempts in seven fewer matches.
That goes with 1,540 digs this year, 152 more than in all of 2008.
McClendon gave plenty of credit to assistant coach and former Nittany Lion libero Kaleena Davidson for getting everyone into the right spots to make so many more digs.
“We have to know our weaknesses and how to read them,” McClendon said. “Because we know these things about ourselves, it’s making us a better team.”
The longer points also mean the team must be in good shape to still be able to jump for hits and blocks at the end of the marathon sessions.
“Coach does a really good job of preparing us, conditioning-wise,” McClendon said. “It’s definitely different from the Blairs (Brown) and Aris (Wilson, from the four championship seasons) who would put the ball down on the first point. But that says a lot about our players defensive-wise. Maybe the rallies are a little bit longer, but you know, I think we’re a better team.”
The Nittany Lions also have had some very reliable help behind the blockers. With libero Dominique Gonzalez, strong passing from outside hitters McClendon and freshman Megan Courtney and several other defensive specialists who have come up big, the defense is giving the offense plenty of extra chances.
The Nittany Lions appear to have quite the advantage against Binghamton, which rolled off a couple upsets in the America East Tournament to earn the automatic qualifying bid into the tournament despite a losing record. The biggest advantage is in size --- the Bearcat roster has only one player listed taller than 6-foot, and she has not played this season.
“I’m not looking ahead, I’m looking at Binghamton,” Rose said. “I’m not looking at the bracket … I’m sorry I’m boring like that.”
Also, Penn State fans should be starting to get used to seeing this weekend’s opponents. Binghamton is making its third NCAA appearance, and the first two in 2005 and 2009 each ended with first-round losses to the Nittany Lions. Yale, which is coached by former Penn State assistant coach Erin Appleman, is making its fourth tournament appearance. The Bulldogs lost last year at Southern California, and also fell to Penn State in 2008.
The first step in getting those six wins starts tonight, and the Nittany Lions know how to get there.
“What we’ve done so well this year, we’re a lot better balanced,” McClendon said. “I think a lot of people are stepping up and taking responsibility and that’s what we need. You’ve got to have a good team. You can’t just have good players.”