LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Way back in August, most observers of women’s college volleyball probably would not have predicted a final four of Penn State, Texas, Oregon, and Michigan.
All right, they probably would have picked Penn State, because what’s an NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship without the Nittany Lions? They won four in a row, didn’t make it last year, and are back for the fifth time in six years.
And they likely would have picked Texas, who makes it this far seemingly every year, but like Penn State, was left out of the party last season. The Longhorns, who are making their eighth trip and fourth in five years, are trying to win it all for the first time since 1988.
But Oregon? Or Michigan? Two respected programs, but probably not expected to be here.
Which gives things a nice twist later today when the national semifinals take place inside the KFC Yum! Center. Both games can be seen on ESPN2.
The first match, at 7 p.m. Eastern, pits third-seeded Texas (27-4) against unseeded Michigan (27-11). But understand that Michigan is not some fly by night: The Wolverines made it to the round of 16 in 2007, 2008, 2009, and last year, and in 2009 came oh-so-close to making the school’s first final four.
At around 9 p.m., top-ranked and top-seeded Penn State (33-2) plays fifth-seeded Oregon (29-4), and for all that the Ducks have done this postseason, the idea that they’re here instead of Pac-12 mates USC, defending-champion UCLA, Stanford, or Washington is astounding.
“I don’t think it has exceeded our expectations because we have always known what we are capable of,” Oregon senior libero Haley Jacob said. “For people who didn’t see the same thing I guess it has definitely exceeded their expectations. We have been consistent throughout the whole season, which is something we haven’t previously done. We have done well as a team to get where we are.”
Certainly Penn State and Texas are heavily favored. Michigan traveled the shortest distance to get here, but Penn State has a Louisvillian on its team. And not just any Louisvillian, but explosive 6-foot-1 junior outside hitter Deja McClendon.
“I’m excited to be back home. I have a great support system here and I think that will really help our team,” said McClendon, whose Nittany Lions opened 2012 in the Yum! Center by sweeping opponents in all three matches. “I also think playing here early in the season will help us. It’s different than freshman year because I have a different role on the team.”
When she was a freshman, Penn State won its fourth consecutive title. This year, McClendon is second on the team only to Big Ten Player of the Year Ariel Scott with 389 kills.
“Freshman year we had a lot of senior leadership so I didn’t really have any worries,” said McClendon, who had 41 kills in Penn State’s first four NCAA matches this year. “I could just go out and play my hardest without worrying about scoring big points and that really helped me out a lot.
“Now my role has changed, I have to be a lot smarter; sometimes I have to put the ball down. It’s not all on me; we have some great leaders on this team. It’s a lot more of a team game in my eyes, opposed to before when I was just a helper.”
Oregon and Penn State haven’t played since early last season when the Ducks came to Penn State and ended the Nittany Lions’ 94-match home winning streak.
“Well, I don’t remember a lot about that match,” said 34-year Penn State coach Russ Rose, who is going for his sixth title. He’s lost twice in the championship match. “I look at the box score of that match and saw that we out-hit them and out-blocked them and they won the match.
“I remember the match the next day, when we beat USC and the crowd went crazy and stormed the floor. So, I remember that a little bit more.
“What I do remember of Oregon is that they have terrific talent. The setter is a very talented player, who has a lot of confidence. They also have three or four players who take big swings. They have a very fast system that most teams are not familiar with. We are not familiar with it and I don’t think we can replicate it in practice. They have had a great season this year in one of, arguably, the toughest conferences.”
Texas also played here in the Yum! Center, beating Louisville in a tough five-set match on October 8.
“I think there was a team goal to get back here,” Texas 6’3” junior outside hitter Bailey Webster said. “It was really beneficial to play here earlier in the season and it helped out a lot. In that match it took us a couple of games to get comfortable with it and I think we are all just excited to be here.”
The last thing they must have expected last Saturday after beating USC to move on was to play Michigan.
“As a coach you always start thinking how you can put the bracket together and start looking at potential matchups,” said 12th-year Texas coach Jerritt Elliott. “Funny thing, I thought (Texas) A&M had a chance to get seeded. If that happened I was very worried that they might send Michigan to us (for the Austin regional). I felt like they were really hot at the time. They went five with Penn State. They had some very good wins.
“They are playing at a very high level. Even though they weren’t ranked they were one of the hottest teams coming into the tournament. After they came here and won in five against Tennessee, they have been playing relaxed and are playing well. They are a very disciplined and well-coached team.
"My staff came over to my house Saturday night after we won and we turned on the TV and started watching them [beat Stanford]. The thing that all of us noticed was how relaxed and how much fun Michigan is having. They got into a really good rhythm against Stanford. I felt like they were one step ahead of them the entire time.”
Later Wednesday Michigan senior middle Claire McElheney was asked about Elliott’s analysis.
“All season, we’ve been working on our mental game and making connections with each other,” she said. “Just like working on skills and practicing, that’s something that we really had to work at. We weren’t perfect at it all season. When there’s a lot of pressure on us or when things aren’t going well, it’s easy to internalize things. But, we’ve been working in those situations and still communicating and making that connection.
“I feel like after this whole season of working on that, our mental side of our game and the connections we have been making are really peaking right now.”