On Monday night, the last night Haleigh Washington would lie in a bed in State College as a member of the Penn State women’s volleyball team, numerous thoughts and emotions coursed through the senior All-American’s head.
“I was thinking, ‘I want this so bad,’” she said Tuesday morning, before the team’s final Rec Hall practice leading up to No. 1 Penn State’s NCAA semifinal against No. 5 Nebraska in Kansas City, Mo.
“I have worked so hard and I’ve come back from so much — and that’s just me,” she continued. “This team, these people, these women that I’ve been blessed to be a part of, this community, this school, has done so much for me and given me so much. I just need to give it back.”
Whatever emotions she may have about the end of her college career and playing with teammates, Washington knows those feelings have to be left on the sideline. On the road to a national championship, there’s no room for that.
The NCAA championships get everyone’s full attention, and if it is even possible, more is needed when Nebraska is on the other side of the net. The teams have a long history of major battles with much on the line. They even shared the Big Ten regular-season title this season.
“We’re all super excited,” senior opposite Heidi Thelen said. “But at the same time (we’re) trying to keep our composure and really focusing on what we need to do on our side of the net.”
The Nittany Lions (33-1) do not need to look far for a reminder of how challenging the Cornhuskers (30-4) can be. They just have to check their record: The only loss of the season was to Nebraska in a sweep in Rec Hall.
That loss hurt, and they begrudgingly watched videos of the match several times afterward. The viewing was necessary, however, to achieve their end goals.
“You have to use matches that you lose,” senior Simone Lee said. “It’s a learning point, and that’s what we do with any match that we lose. Being that was the one match that we lost all season, I think we need to use and watch even more video on and watch the matches they lost.”
Nebraska also bounced Penn State from the NCAA tournament last season in the sweet 16. Penn State had won the first two sets and even served a match point on the Huskers’ home court, but were foiled, lost the third set and the match spiraled away.
The rivalry between two of the best college volleyball programs in the country has historically tilted toward Nebraska — 20-10. The disparity is more pronounced in the tournament, with the Huskers winning seven of the 10 meetings.
If Penn State wins Thursday, it can chase its eighth championship Saturday night, breaking a tie with defending champ Stanford for the most NCAA titles. The Cardinal, however, meet Florida in the day’s other semifinal later Thursday.
After these matches, everyone heads home. Six Nittany Lion seniors are set to graduate this weekend, including Washington, which prompted those deep ponderings Monday night. They can say they want to treat this like any other road match, but it isn’t. There are no classes or practice on Monday.
The circumstances are special, but if the Lions can handle them, the memories of this weekend will last a lifetime.
“Whatever sport you play, this is what you should be dreaming about,” said coach Russ Rose, who has guided the program to all seven titles and 98 tournament wins. “This is ... why you work hard, why you do the things you do to get yourself in a position to compete for a national championship.”
NCAA women’s volleyball semifinals
Where: Sprint Center, Kansas City, Mo.
Who: No. 1 Penn State (33-1) vs. No. 5 Nebraska (30-4), 7 p.m.; No. 3 Stanford (30-3) vs. No. 2 Florida (29-1), 9 p.m.
Finals: 9 p.m. Saturday
Radio: WRSC 1390