Penn State Volleyball

Penn State volleyball: Seniors chasing one more NCAA title for Nittany Lions

The play still shows up in the highlights: Blair Brown hammers a spike at California, the ball is dug but right back above the net and Katie Slay hammers the overpass into the floor.

It was the final point to clinch the 2010 national championship, beating California for Penn State’s fourth straight NCAA women’s volleyball title.

The Most Outstanding Player of that championship weekend? Deja McClendon.

They were two of three freshman starters on that team, joined by Ariel Scott, and are the remaining links to the Nittany Lions’ last title.

Now McClendon, Scott, Slay and three other seniors have one more shot to earn a second title with the Nittany Lions, and play their final home matches this weekend in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

“It was really exciting for all of us to win it our freshman year,” Slay said. “It was really special that Ariel, Deja and I got to contribute on the court as well. Everyone’s been saying, ‘You came in with a win, what are you going to so to finish?’ It’s definitely something that’s been on our minds, but it’s a whole team.”

Slay and second-seeded Penn State (28-2) hosts Long Island-Brooklyn (23-7) at 7:30 p.m. Friday, following the night’s first battle between Yale (20-4) and Utah (20-12) at 5 p.m.

The winners meet at 7:30 p.m. Saturday to earn a berth in the regional semifinals.

The Nittany Lions are loaded with postseason experience — every starter this year also was a starter on a team that made the NCAA semifinals.

And every team member from the senior starters to the freshmen on the bench know all about the history and tradition of the program, not only with the NCAA-record run of four straight titles from 2007 to 2010 and the gigantic win streaks and other records accumulated during that period, but also with the five total national crowns, the 10 trips to the national semifinals and being one of only two programs to have been a part of every NCAA Tournament.

“Each year is different,” Slay said. “We have high goals for our program. We’ve had a lot of great former players come through. Coach has always done a good job of setting up the program for success. We definitely want to carry on the tradition.”

The seniors — a class that also includes Maddie Martin, Erica Denney and Maggie Harding — do not necessarily talk about winning that title in 2010 in specifics. But there is the experience of playing under those conditions, of the different rules and requirements of the postseason, and of being a part of the long history and passing along what is expected of everyone on the team.

“I don’t feel I deserve that title,” McClendon said of being a wise veteran. “But I do have a little experience I can pass on, stories I’ve been told about the program that need to keep going. It’s a cool position to be in to feel like you have some effect on somebody else’s life.”

Having a ring and being in the giant team picture that hangs near the entrance to Rec Hall just crystallizes all those expectations.

“For me, that’s just the feeling of winning a national championship,” McClendon said. “It’s something I want to feel again, and it’s something I want to teach the girls how — they already know how important — but how unreal it is. That’s all I can really bring back from the 2010 season. Everything now is about ‘This is us, this is our team and we have to show people what we’re about.’”

Even the non-seniors feel the weight of those expectations for the program, and know anything short of a trip to Seattle for the final four would be disappointing.

“I feel a little bit of pressure because I’ve known these girls for three years,” junior setter Micha Hancock said. “It’s a, kind of anxious kind of pressure. I know that we’re a talented group, I know that if we play well we’re going to be hard to stop. It’s up to us. We’ve got to put it on the court.”

Following that title in 2010, the road did end a little short of the goal. The next season, the Nittany Lions lost in the third round to eventual champion UCLA. Last season, the team advanced to the semifinals before falling in four sets to Oregon after Hancock was hampered by an ankle sprain to disrupt the offense.

“I wouldn’t say the whole years have been disappointments,” Slay said, “because there have been a lot of special people I got to play with and a lot friendships I made and a lot of wins we got to celebrate. There also was a lot of growing and learning from losses.”

The seniors get one more shot, and it starts Friday night.

Between them and another ring — and hanging another banner in the Rec Hall rafters — are winning six matches.

“The expectations are really high here,” coach Russ Rose said. “They know that coming in, they know that while they’re here.”

“All we can do is put all that together,” Slay said, “and just try to go out on a happy note.”

This weekend’s teams

Penn State (28-2): The Big Ten champions are making 32nd straight NCAA appearance and are gunning for a sixth national title. … The Nittany Lions have won 23 straight opening-round matches at Rec Hall. … Penn State has only lost three tournament matches all-time at home. … The team is riding 19-match win streak. … Penn State leads Division I with 3.08 blocks per set, and is fourth in hitting at .312. … Team is led by Ariel Scott’s 3.20 kills per set, Deja McClendon’s 2.93 kps, Katie Slay’s 1.63 blocks per set, and setter Micha Hancock is second in the nation with 0.64 aces per set.

LIU-Brooklyn (23-7): The Blackbirds were the Northeast Conference champions and are making their eighth NCAA appearance in the last 10 years. … This is their fourth trip to Rec Hall. … Only first-round win came in 2005, beating Cornell before losing to Penn State. … Closed season with 10-match win streak. … Began season with losses to No. 16 seed Duke (3-0) and No. 5 Florida (3-1). Only three players on roster taller than 5-foot-11. … The team is led by Annika Foit’s 4.15 kills per set, Tamara Ignjic’ 3.49 kps and Jessica Rice’s 1.27 blocks per set.

Yale (20-4): The Bulldogs won the Ivy League title for the fourth straight season and seventh time overall, sixth under coach Erin Appleman, a former Nittany Lion assistant coach. … Only losses this season were to Harvard, Penn State, No. 4 seed Missouri and No. 7 seed Stanford. They closed season winning 14 of last 15. … Three-time Ivy Player of the Year Kendall Polan leads the Yale offense with 9.42 assists per set and 0.40 aces per set. … Mollie Rogers averages 3.05 kills per set, and Kelly Johnson averages 2.85 kps.

Utah (20-12): The Utes earned an at-large from the Pac-12 for its first NCAA appearance since 2008, when it made the sweet 16. … They ranked second in the Pac-12 and ninth in Division I averaging 2.89 blocks per set. … Utah is 10-10 all-time in the tournament. … The Utes finished seventh in the Pac-12. … Wins against NCAA tournament teams include Arizona State (twice), Arizona, California. … Team led by Shelby Dalton (2.68 kills per set), Chelsey Schofield (2.42 kps) and Erin Redd-Brandon (1.40 blocks per set).