UNIVERSITY PARK — Another NCAA Tournament is at hand for the Penn State women’s volleyball team, and another title is on their agenda.
The No. 2-seeded Nittany Lions learned their opponent and the possibilities beyond when the bracket was unveiled Sunday night.
Now the task is simple, at least in words.
“The NCAAs are a sprint,” coach Russ Rose said. “The person and teams that win will have won six matches. That’s what the focus is.”
The first match is at 7:30 p.m. Friday when Long Island-Brooklyn visits Rec Hall.
The Blackbirds (23-7), who won the Northeast Conference title this season, may be unfamiliar to the current Nittany Lions, but the program is not for Penn State volleyball fans. LIU was eliminated by the Nittany Lions from the 2005, ’06 and ’08 tournaments.
Penn State (28-2) will be seeking its sixth national title, and fifth in the last seven seasons.
“We’ve been looking forward to the NCAA Tournament all year,” senior opposite Ariel Scott said. “It’s our last one, so we definitely want to go out with a bang.”
Scott is one of six Lions with a championship ring in her possession, along with Katie Slay, Deja McClendon, Maggie Harding, Maddie Martin and Erica Denney. All of them will be playing their final matches in Rec Hall this weekend.
Each got to experience being with the 2010 team either playing or taking a redshirt year, and each has also experienced falling short of that goal each of the last two seasons. In 2012, Penn State advanced to the national semifinals before falling to Oregon in four sets, and every starter from that team has returned.
“Our freshman year, when we were the young ones and there were older people on the team with lots of experience, we just were able to relax and do whatever they did and follow their lead,” Slay said. “Now that we’re the experienced players, it’s our job to set the tone for the team and keep everyone relaxed.”
While it may be easy to look ahead to potential matchups with Stanford, Minnesota, Michigan State and Kentucky — Penn State hasn’t even dropped a set in the opening-round of the tournament since 1989, when it lost to Illinois — Rose makes sure his team never takes an opponent for granted.
“It’s really important not to overlook people,” McClendon said. “Coach always comes into the game thinking this is going to be the toughest game that we play, and he makes us think that. When we get out there we don’t underestimate anybody that we play. It keeps us on top of our stuff.”
For years, the first two rounds hosted at Rec Hall have had a regional flair, generally with the three visiting teams traveling no more than a few hundred miles. Since 2002, no one has had to travel more than 400 miles to get to State College.
But Friday’s other first-round match, set for 5 p.m., has Yale and Utah. The Bulldogs, coached by former Penn State assistant coach Erin Appleman, have been here before — including in September — but the Utes will be making their first trip to town.
They will have to travel better than 1,900 miles.
“You never really know what comes out of a committee decision,” Rose said. “You can’t say you’re trying to save money and (then) do something like that, because not only did they send a team from Utah here, they’re sending teams from the East to the West Coast.”
Among others making long treks are New Hampshire playing at No. 6 USC, Hampton and Alabama playing at No. 7 Stanford, Alabama State and LSU playing at No. 3 Washngton and all three teams who will have to fly to No. 11 Hawaii.
Rose said when he was on the tournament committee, teams were seeded from No. 1 to 64, but lately there had been more consideration given to travel and expenses.
Primed and ready
There was no coasting through the final match of the regular season even after the Nittany Lions had locked up the Big Ten title. They still had to deal with Nebraska, which drew the No. 8 seed and provided a major test to prepare for the tournament.
While the four-set road win itself gives the team a lift, it was the way the team won that also will help. In both the third and fourth sets the Nittany Lions trailed 23-20 but rallied to win the sets.
“We didn’t give up,” Scott said. “We could have easily just said, ‘OK next game.’ But we grinded it out like Coach said. We stuck in it.”
As Rose noted, it was the opposite scenario from his team’s last loss on Sept. 27 to Michigan State, when late leads in the first two sets evaporated in a five-set loss to the Spartans.
“The team didn’t lost their heads,” Rose said. “It’s easy in a situation like that, especially with younger players, to really get distracted. But I think the fact that we had a veteran group of people, some of them playing well and some not so well, but even the ones playing not-so-well didn’t freak out and bring the rest of the team down.”
It also didn’t hurt the team completed that rally in front of a crowd of 8,561, the largest crowd they have seen this year, and nearly every one of them was clad in red.
“It was two really evenly-matched teams playing (in front of) a partisan crowd,” Rose said. “It wasn’t a partisan crowd for us, so it was good that we were able to handle the additional distractions that take place when you’re playing a good team.”
Another Hancock honor
Setter Micha Hancock was named Big Ten Setter of the Week on Monday. It is the 15th time in her career she has picked up a weekly conference award, and the 11th time she grabbed the setter honor.
McClendon, a native of Louisville, would really like get a happy ending in her home state this season. A win in the first two rounds would send the team to the regionals in Lexington, Ky.
The Nittany Lions have ended each of the last two seasons in the Bluegrass State, losing to eventual champion UCLA in Lexington in 2011 and to Oregon in Louisville last year.
“If we make it back to Kentucky, I would like to do it right this time,” McClendon said. “I feel like I need a little redemption. It’s always nice to go home, but for me that’s not what it’s all about. It’s about playing my last couple matches and doing it right.”