Penn State volleyball: Nittany Lions won’t be the crowd favorite for NCAA semifinals

Officially, it’s a neutral court.

The site was chosen years ago, and there were no assurances who would be playing in the matches.

But when the first serve is delivered for the NCAA women’s volleyball championships at Seattle’s KeyArena, one team will have a decided home-court advantage.

No. 2 Penn State will tangle with No. 3 Washington at about 9:30 p.m. Thursday in the semifinals, and the arena is just five miles from the Huskies’ home court.

“I kind of like playing a little bit with adversity,” Nittany Lion senior outside hitter Deja McClendon said Monday. “That gives you something more to fight for.”

“The underdog thing is kind of a fun way to try to win a match,” junior setter Micha Hancock added as the team held a brief session with the media Monday afternoon. They held their practice at 9:30 p.m. to simulate their match time, then prepared to fly west Tuesday.

While there are Penn State alumni in the Seattle area, and some fans will be making the trip — some members of the Blue Band also will be going — they will be vastly outnumbered by fans wearing the purple and gold of the “host” school.

The Nittany Lions are certainly used to drawing decent-size crowds at road matches. Over the final month of the regular season, better than 8,500 showed up to see Penn State win at Nebraska, and close to 6,000 were on hand for wins at Minnesota and Wisconsin, which plays in Thursday’s first semifinal against No. 1 Texas at 7:30 p.m.

While they may be rooting against Penn State, the energy in the 17,000-seat building will help regardless.

“It makes it all the more exciting, you know?” coach Russ Rose said. “The ante’s a little bit higher, and kids should be thrilled about that. We’ve played in matches with big crowds. This might be a bigger crowd, but it’s just a different color code.”

Rose also pointed out the students are gone from campus, so they may not have as much impact as if the matches were played two weeks ago. Final exams ended last Friday for Washington.

Still, there will be plenty on hand to root on the Huskies — and against the Nittany Lions.

“They have great fans that are passionate about their teams and will make a lot of noise,” Rose said. “But I don’t think they’ll be as personal as some of the fans that we see in the Big Ten, at some of the venues along the way.”

Top dog

Washington is a strong all-around team, with a number of offensive and defensive threats, but the most prominent Husky is junior outside hitter Krista Vansant.

She was the Pac-12 Player of the Year, is likely on the short list for the AVCA’s national Player of the Year, which will be handed out later this week and has been a handful for pretty much every opponent all season.

Saturday night, however, she had a night to remember. In a five-set win over Southern California — on the Trojans’ home floor — she recorded 38 kills and 30 digs.

“Some matches that we played, that’s more than the other team had,” Rose pointed out. “She had an incredible performance and she’s an exceptional player.”

In fact, 15 times this season an opponent did not have as many as 38 kills in a match. There were even six matches Penn State did not have that many kills.

Could McClendon put up those kind of numbers?

“I hope so,” she laughed. “That’s why I train.”

Vansant also took 81 of the team’s 217 swings, making her quite the workhorse. The Huskies needed every one of her kills, rallying from two sets down, and fighting off two match points, to beat the Trojans. Vansant also was locked into quite the duel with USC star Ebony Nwanabu, who had 30 kills on an error-free 53 swings.

“She’s killer,” McClendon said of Vansant. “She’s an awesome player. These are the matches that we live for. I can’t wait to play.”

Rose said his team will not be focusing specifically on stopping the junior, although they will be aware of where she is since she takes swings from side-to-side in both the front and back rows.

“I don’t look at it as, A — you have to design a plan to stop her, because I don’t think you can, or B — that they’re one-dimensional,” Rose said. “I don’t think they’re one-dimensional. They’re good at a number of positions.”

We are busy that day

McClendon and senior middle hitter Katie Slay will have to miss out on something else pretty special this weekend — they also graduate on Saturday. It’s pretty safe to say where they would rather be.

Watching and listening

The semifinals and finals will be shown on ESPN2, and Penn State’s matches will be broadcast on WRSC-FM (103.1).