Olympic team stacked with former Lions

Penn State's Aaron Russell, left, and Max Holt are part of the 12-player U.S. roster for the Olympics in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. The matches begin next weekend.
Penn State's Aaron Russell, left, and Max Holt are part of the 12-player U.S. roster for the Olympics in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. The matches begin next weekend. Photo provided

“They could practically take that whole team out to be the national team.”

That was Karch Kiraly’s assessment of the Penn State women’s volleyball team in December 2008.

But that’s how good that team was, and after producing All-Americans and national championships, one of the greatest measures of pure talent is what they did with those abilities.

Playing in the Olympics is a pretty good measure.

And he was just talking about the women’s team. The guys were pretty good at the time, too.

The conversation with Kiraly was in a small classroom down a dark hallway in Rec Hall. Penn State was hosting the NCAA regionals, and Kiraly was in town as the color analyst for ESPN.

As a volleyball fan, it was a cool experience to interview perhaps the greatest legend in American volleyball history. I had seen him help the U.S. win a gold medal in 1984 and 1988 on the indoor court, then land gold again when the beach game was added as an Olympic sport in 1996.

At the time of the conversation, the U.S. women’s program was looking for a new coach. Hugh McCutcheon got the job the next week, and Kiraly was added to the staff a couple months after. So maybe he already had a good glimpse of what was in store for the U.S. team for 2012. Now, he’s the head coach, and Team USA will start chasing gold — the women’s team has never won an Olympic title — next weekend when the games kick off in Rio.

Meanwhile, the Penn State women’s team was in the midst of one of the greatest runs in the sport, and maybe even in all of Division I athletics. The Nittany Lions were rolling — obliterating — the competition. They won 109 straight matches, an NCAA record, and also broke the records for home and road win streaks. And when I say obliterating the competition, it was decisive, with every 2008 match until the national semifinals by a 3-0 sweep.

At the American Volleyball Coaches Association banquet before the final four, all six starters were named All-Americans. It had never happened before or since.

And Kiraly could see the talent.

“It’s not many Penn State players who’ve had an impact at the next level, the national team, the Olympic level,” Kiraly said that day in 2008. “With (Christa) Harmotto and (Nicole) Fawcett and (Megan) Hodge and (Alisha) Glass and whoever else, everybody’s looking so good on that team. They could practically take that whole team out to be the national team — it might be the national team.”

Fawcett was the National Player of the Year that season. Harmotto was arguably on the short list for the award the previous season. Hodge won it the next year. Glass was getting them the ball perfectly, and running an offense that was setting the record for hitting efficiency.

Harmotto (now Christa Dietzen) is Team USA’s captain, ready for her second Olympics after starting in 2012 and helping them to a silver medal. Glass is a setter ready for her first summer games. Hodge (now Megan Easy) played in 2012 and is an alternate this year. Fawcett, who has been one of the world’s top hitters in pro leagues, is an alternate for a second time.

If you were sitting in the Rec Hall bleachers, you got to witness the nation’s best in so many ways.

Actually, I remember wondering quite a few times, even for big matches and NCAA contests, why there weren’t more fans in the seats. It was an incredible run of wins by an incomparable collection of athletes.

And the same thoughts were occurring to me in the spring during men’s matches.

The last half of the decade, it could be argued, the world of college volleyball revolved around Rec Hall. The men won the 2008 title and played in two other finals, while the women won four crowns in a row.

The men’s team had national co-Player of the Year Matt Anderson, the top player for the U.S. the past four years, and Max Holt. Anderson will be playing in his second Olympic games, Holt will be in his first.

When the U.S. men begin chasing the third gold in program history, three Lions will be lending a hand — more than any other college program. As a matter of fact, off and on for the past year, Aaron Russell, who just graduated last year, was a starter along with Holt and Anderson.

The U.S. women are medal favorites in Rio, finishing second a few weeks ago in the FIVB World Grad Prix after losing in the finals to Olympic host Brazil, while the men also have a good shot at a medal after winning the World Cup last September.

The teams are there with the help of a bunch of Nittany Lions who know all about winning. Plenty of area fans got to see that talent up close in Rec Hall.

Karch Kiraly could see it eight years ago.

Gordon Brunskill: 814-231-4608, @gordoncdt