There’s nothing like setting an impossibly high standard for your program.
The Penn State women’s volleyball team was in the rankings all season, will have a couple athletes figuring to make All-American lists and was contending most of the season in the Big Ten.
But losing nine matches — and not being considered one of the favorites to win yet another national championship — drew plenty of concern.
When you have seven national championships on your resume, including six in the last decade, so much is expected.
“We finished fourth (in the Big Ten) and a lot of people were terribly disappointed,” head coach Russ Rose said earlier this week. “We had to battle. We had to battle to finish fourth. The players know that they can play at a high level. A lot of the success rests in how they’re mentally prepared and rested and how they handle the challenges that other teams have.”
The slate is wiped clean and challenge No. 1 comes Friday night.
The Nittany Lions (22-9), seeded 16th for the NCAA tournament, hosts Long Island University-Brooklyn in the first round at 7:30 p.m. at Rec Hall. Dayton and Pittsburgh meet in the first match at 5 p.m. The winners battle at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
It’s difficult not to compare teams and expect so much, with banners hanging in the rafters and celebration pictures clinging to Rec Hall walls, not that Rose ever likes to worry about past accomplishments beyond knowing there are seven trophies in his office.
“I don’t remember last year’s run,” Rose joked when asked to compare things to his very first NCAA tournament team 36 years ago.
But having such high-quality success in the recent past makes it easy to expect a lot, especially with several current Lions on the last title team in 2014. Should fans think there should be undefeated seasons and six All-Americans in the starting lineup? Maybe not, although Rose wouldn’t mind a roster filled with that level of talent every season.
“It’s tough for the people that were big fans then,” Rose said. “They think, ‘My God, you guys have just fallen on incredibly hard times.’”
To raise an eighth banner, the Nittany Lions will have to do a lot of things right.
They will have to play sound defense, get good passing to setter Abby Detering and she will have to make some good decisions where to feed the ball. They also will have to put a lot of pressure on opponents with their serve game, and all of that will have to be done consistently — which is the biggest expectation of them all.
“We’ve made progress in a lot of areas,” Rose said. “I wouldn’t say we’re a finely tuned machine in any area.”
A glance at this weekend’s teams:
LIU-Brooklyn: The Blackbirds (16-14) should be pretty familiar to Nittany Lion volleyball fans. This will be the seventh time they have played in Rec Hall over the last dozen seasons, and this will be the fifth time these teams have met in the tournament, the last in 2013, and all ended with 3-0 sweeps.
LIU-Brooklyn won the Northeast Conference tournament title for the 10th time, had a 10-4 conference record and has some international flair to its roster, with two players from China, two from Austria and one each from Sweden and Serbia. Alex Larsen (2.97 kills per set, 2.26 digs per set), Viktoria Fink (2.53 kps) and Katharina Krepper (0.95 blocks per set) lead the team.
Dayton: The Flyers (30-1) are another team that should be really familiar, having lost to Penn State in the second round each of the previous two seasons. They enter the weekend with Division I’s best record and on a 19-match win streak, with the only loss 3-0 to Loyola-Marymount on Sept. 16 at home. They rank eighth in the nation with 14.5 kills per set and 10th in hitting .282.
The Atlantic-10 champions are paced by Jessica Sloan (3.92 kps, 34 aces), Amber Erhahon (2.82 kps, .420 hitting, 1.21 bps) and Margo Wolf (4.99 dps).
Pitt: The Panthers (24-8) are in the tournament for the first time since 2004 and 14th time overall. While Pitt and Penn State meet annually in spring scrimmages, the Panthers have not played officially in Rec Hall since 2009. Pitt tied for fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference and was the only ACC team to beat No. 7 seed North Carolina this season. Also, Penn State assistant coach Craig Dyer was on the Pitt staff last season.
The roster features as many non-Americans as it does Pennsylvanians (4), and they are a strong serving team, ranked 17th in the nation averaging 1.64 aces per set. The Panthers are led by Stephanie Williams (3.78 kps), Mariah Bell (3.29 kps, 42 aces), Nika Markovic (35 aces), Angela Seman (30 aces, 4.0 dps) and Jenna Potts (1.33 bps).
What: NCAA first round
Who: Dayton (30-1) vs. Pittsburgh (24-8), 5 p.m.; LIU-Brooklyn (16-14) at No. 16 Penn State (22-9), 7:30 p.m.
Where: Rec Hall
Second round: 6:30 p.m. Saturday