Penn State volleyball: Lions left wondering what derailed title hopes

gbrunski@centredaily.comDecember 15, 2012 

— “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’”

Those are the words of American poet John Greenleaf Whittier, and they match a common tale in sports — “What if …”

In the case of the Penn State women’s volleyball team, there are so many “what if’s” to ponder as its members are forced to now look back at a season halted two days before planned, without the trophy they were expecting to bring home.

The Nittany Lion season ended Thursday night in a four-set loss to Oregon in the NCAA semifinals.

That alone, from the perspective of most athletic programs regardless of the sport, is a pretty good accomplishment. Penn State has been to the final four 10 times now, which only a handful of women’s volleyball programs have done, and there is certainly no shame in that.

But the Nittany Lion standards are now set higher — winning four straight national championships will have that effect – and they instead must ponder what derailed them from reaching their goal.

“If you’re going to like it when you’re on top, you gotta be able to man up when you’re not,” head coach Russ Rose said sometime close to 1 a.m. at the end of two long semifinal matches which set up the Ducks and Texas Longhorns in Saturday’s title match.

“Either players are going to step up and do what they have to do and we’re going to get better as a staff,” Rose continued, “or we’ll look back on an era of Penn State volleyball and say, ‘Boy, that was a great era.’ Players have to be able to do a little bit more.”

Saying the staff and players could have done more really may be asking too much. About the only fault that can be put on the coaches was not having a backup setter ready to step in at a key moment. But when your team is playing a lot of tight matches in a very difficult Big Ten, and you need to make sure your starting setter is getting enough reps and has near-perfect timing down with the hitters, when was that supposed to happen? Practices can only do so much to prepare for game speed, let alone the bright lights of a national championship.

Yes, Kristin Carpenter was the starting setter two years ago when the Lions won their last crown, but her role has been quite different since then even while she has been getting practice time as a setter.

The necessity of Carpenter comes from the first “what if,” when starting setter Micha Hancock turned her ankle in the second set. She missed part of the game, then returned but was hardly the same. She couldn’t block adequately, which was a problem since she would was facing the Ducks’ powerful left-side hitters when she was in the front row, and her deadly topspin jump serve was put on a shelf in favor of a simple float, removing another weapon from the Nittany Lion arsenal.

So, what if Hancock hadn’t been injured? Would Penn State, which finished the season 33-3, be playing Saturday night?

Here’s another one: In the same set Hancock got hurt, and after she returned, Oregon built a 20-10 lead only to see it evaporate under the Nittany Lion blockers. The game was tied at 24-24, Penn State then had three set points, and on the third National Player of the Year Alaina Bergsma’s spike clearly ticked the antenna, which would have given the set to the Lions. ESPN replays even showed Bergsma’s hand hit both the antenna and net, which is also a violation. But the officials missed it all, the ball landed in to tie the set and Oregon eventually won 30-28.

What if Oregon, in its first appearance at a final four, had to sit in its locker room at intermission pondering how it had let a 20-10 lead get away? What if the Nittany Lions had gone into the break on the emotional high of a 2-0 lead after pulling off such a spectacular rally?

Then again, what if Penn State did get that point, did win the match and had to face an incredibly powerful and athletic Texas team likely without its starting setter and biggest serving weapon?

And, on the subject of what if’s, what if the Nittany Lions were playing this weekend with two other players who instead missed the entire season with an injury and a personal matter?

Instead, Penn State played with the hand it was dealt, and championships are won not just when everything is going right, when all the pieces fall into place, but also when fate takes a team down an alternate path. That is when a team can really learn what it has inside.

“It’s always frustrating to finish your season on a loss,” sophomore Dominique Gonzalez said after the match. “The worst thing would be to not learn from it and get better and move on.”

They will move on. The only graduation losses will be Carpenter and Marika Racibarskas, who also is a backup setter, and there is no reason not to believe the program will be back on top and pointing toward a trip to Seattle next December for the finals.

“One team ends the season on a great high,” Rose said. “That’s what it is. (It) doesn’t mean everybody else is failures. I think it’s how do you assess — like (Gonzalez) said about what do you learn, how do you assess the whole season? You don’t base it on this match. We didn’t go into the match thinking, ‘What do we do if Micha gets hurt?’ Micha didn’t miss a match all year. All of a sudden she gets hurt, and it’s an opportunity for other people to step up and do things, and I’m asking them, ‘How do you feel? Do you feel like you really did?’”

Instead, it left the Nittany Lions to lament, “It might have been.”

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