The seeds for Oregon’s last step on its rise to success just might have been planted on a sweltering night in Rec Hall on Aug. 26, 2011.
Penn State entered the night fresh off four straight national championships, and was riding an NCAA-record 94-match win streak, but the Ducks spoiled the festivities with a 3-1 win in the season opener.
The teams meet again with a lot more on the line this time, facing off in the KFC Yum! Center in the national championship semifinals. The teams battle at about 9 p.m. Thursday, following a 7 p.m. match between Michigan and Texas.
The winners will then face off for the title at 7 p.m. Saturday.
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So, in practical terms, how much impact does that Oregon win to open last season have on this night?
Ducks coach Jim Moore pinched his index finger to his thumb Wednesday when asked that question — “None,” he said. “It’s two years removed.”
But he also understood the bigger picture.
“It did do a lot for the program,” he said. “In so many ways, it did do a lot for this group of players. It sort of let them know that they were good. It was special.”
The Ducks have continued their rise, winning in the regional round for the first time in program history this year, and now they are in the national semifinals for the first time.
But now they get the Nittany Lions again, and even though it’s not in the friendly confines of Rec Hall, this could still be considered Penn State’s turf.
The Nittany Lions are once again the hunted, entering the tournament as the top seed and chasing a fifth NCAA crown in the last six years. This is their time, and they have the experienced players who have been through these situations before, who have danced on the court and hoisted a championship trophy.
“It never gets old because this is what you want to do,” said Nittany Lion head coach Russ Rose, who has won a total of five titles, more than any other coach. “If you are in coaching, you want your kids to play at the highest level. What I do is about them. These kids should have a great time, they should push the limits, they should get everybody else fired up and have a great time.”
Even though the pedigrees are decidedly one-sided, it’s hardly a mismatch.
The Ducks have had their best season in program history, winning more games and finishing second in the Pac-12. They have a strong defense, a lightning-quick offense that leads the nation in kills and a national Player of the Year candidate in Alaina Bergsma.
“I think it’s about neutralizing what they do, and then doing what we do best at the game,” All-American setter Micha Hancock said of her team’s strategy. “It’s one point at a time, especially being at the final four, we’re going hard after every ball and just trying to keep our game.”
The Nittany Lions bring plenty to the match, in addition to all that postseason experience.
Penn State has the nation’s third-best hitting team, 11th-best blocking team, a much-improved back-line of defenders and a strong serving game.
“What doesn’t worry me?” Moore responded when asked about Penn State. “They can do things physically that no one else can do. They and Texas are in the same boat in that sense. They can just do things that, if we don’t apply pressure and if we don’t do some things to get them out of system, if we don’t serve tough and we don’t do the stuff we’re supposed to do … we have zero chance.”
Moore quickly amended that to say it would be “a lot more difficult,” but he knows what kind of effort Penn State puts forth each match, and while Penn State may not be the overpowering team it was a few seasons ago, it plays just well enough to outlast and frustrate opponents.
Rose admitted Wednesday he couldn’t recall many of the details of that last meeting between the Nittany Lions and Ducks, but he knows Oregon has been rising since that night.
Both programs will be looking to make history, whether it’s a first title for the Ducks or an NCAA-record sixth for Penn State.
There will still be one more match to win after Thursday, but it should be a pretty special night no matter what.
“I’m not comparing them to teams of the past and I’m not talking about teams of the future. It’s this group, this team,” Rose said. “We’ve got a couple matches here in Louisville and were going to go out there and have a good time.”