Texas, Penn State, Washington, and Wisconsin

Yes, Wisconsin. They're headed to the final four!

Ed Chan
USC fans try to help their squad overcome opponent Washington.

When the preseason AVCA poll came out in August, Wisconsin got a few votes.

Fast forward to the third week of December and, well, Wisconsin?

Indeed. A spunky young team with a first-year coach is one of the final four teams headed to Seattle. Not that everyone is crashing the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship. It’s worth noting that in that same poll Texas was No. 1, Penn State 2 and Washington 5.

But how about Washington?

Down 0-2 at USC and finally, around 2 a.m. on the East Coast, dodged two match points and came away with a 17-15 victory for the ages that will put the Huskies in front of their hometown fans on Thursday night when they play Penn State. Popcorn and soda sellers who work the events at Key Arena have to be thrilled.

Texas? No one can be surprised that the defending national champion is back and, barring something really shocking, going to play the Penn State-Washington winner on Saturday night.

Saturday was an epic day of big-time, big-girl volleyball and it started with Penn State’s five-set victory over Stanford. Interestingly, at the Nike Big 4 Challenge in September in Austin, those two teams did not play each other, but probably saw everything they needed to know as Penn State lost to Texas but then beat Florida and Stanford lost to both Florida and Texas.

No wonder Penn State coach Russ Rose said simply, “It was a great match between two teams that have great respect for each other. They’re a terrific opponent and I want to recognize the seniors on the Stanford team, but tonight our seniors really carried the day.”

Saturday it was evident that both teams were open for business from the first serve in Penn State’s 22-25, 25-22, 28-26, 18-25, 15-11 victory in which senior Ariel Scott had 22 kills and eight digs and senior Deja McClendon added 21 kills and 16 digs. Junior setter Micha Hancock had 58 assists and 15 digs and ferocious senior middle Katie Slay, who owned the end of the fifth set, had nine kills while hitting .438 and a season-high nine blocks.

Penn State (32-2), who lost to Oregon in last year’s national semifinals, trailed 9-6 in the fifth.

“I thought we would come back in the fifth game,” Rose said. “It was disappointing how many points we gave away in the fourth game and fifth game, but Stanford can do that. It’s hard to explain how good some of their players are and how special they are at what they do.”

Most coaches would laugh at that point of a post-game news conference, but not the sardonic Rose, who is in his 35th season in Happy Valley.

“We felt like we could have success even when things were a little bumpy we kept our heads, even though I was chewing on a couple of behinds out there,” he said with straight face.

You can imagine he’ll do some more chewing in Seattle.

Saturday’s action on ESPNU continued at the University of Illinois, where Big Ten mates Purdue and Wisconsin went at it for a third time this season. They had split the previous two meetings, but this time it was all Badgers and first-year coach Kelly Sheffield.

“I think the only thing to say is woo-hoo,” Sheffield said. “The final four … you’re kidding me.”

No kidding. Whereas Penn State won it all in 1999, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010, Wisconsin (27-9) is back in the final four for the first time since 2000, when it lost to then-undefeated Nebraska in the NCAA title match.

And this is the kind of stuff you can’t make up: 5-foot-7 junior outside hitter Deme Morales had a career-high 20 kills. The leader was freshman setter Lauren Carlini, who had 55 assists and 10 digs, while junior Ellen Chapman had 19 kills and hit .441, and junior Dominique Thompson had 15 kills and hit .400. Senior Annemarie Hickey had a career-high 23 digs.

“It’s just an unbelievable feeling,” Chapman said, whose career had a rebirth when Sheffield arrived last spring. “We were told to never stop dreaming and tonight’s the night we’ve been waiting for. To get to the final four is unreal. I just can’t even describe it; it’s such an amazing feeling.”

Same for Carlini, who no doubt has announced her presence on the national stage.

“It’s awesome for the older girls,” Carlini said. “You go from not even being in the tournament at all and now you’re in the final four. It just shows how much of a transformation everyone has made in that one year. It’s magical right now. It’s crazy.”

Crazy was the number of people in the Devaney Sports Center (8,343) watching their Cornhuskers get steamrolled by top-seeded Texas, 25-19, 25-22, 25-23.

“It was a great environment for us to be placed in and to know that no matter what type of environment we’re in, even at Nebraska and all their fans screaming at us, we know we can play really well together and just trust ourselves,” UT All-American outside Haley Eckerman said. “We don’t have to worry about the crowd and just zone them out.”

Nebraska was zoned out, all right. It was swept in Lincoln for the first time in 24 years as the Huskers were no match for the 27-2 Longhorns, who have won 23 matches in a row including a five-set win over Nebraska in Austin on Sept. 22.

As expected, the Texas front line was superb.

“Texas is a great team and deserves a lot of credit,” Nebraska coach John Cook said. “Both their left sides played really well and we had no answer for them.”

Eckerman had 14 kills and 15 digs, while Bailey Webster had 12 kills and hit .500. Together they had 26 kills on 73 swings and only three errors. Khat Bell and Chiaka Ogbogu had seven kills each.

“I thought we put a lot of pressure on Nebraska,” said UT coach Jerritt Elliott, whose team lost its season opener at Hawai’i but hasn’t lost since getting swept by Arizona State in a tournament at Illinois on Sept. 13.

“On the offensive side, we had low errors and our blocking was very good. We just had a great mentality. We didn’t let the crowd get to us. We played a tough preseason and hopefully that had something to do with this.”

Last year, Texas finally broke through with Elliott’s first NCAA title and the school’s first since 1988. Now the Longhorns are thinking repeat.

“I’ve got a bunch of winners on my team and they’ve had a lot of pressure on them throughout the year and everyone comes after them,” Elliott said. “When you have Texas on your back and national championship, it’s not easy.

“We’ve got to get them at the highest level emotionally and it’s my job to manage them. It’s hard to do sometimes just because they’re 18-22 and they’ve got a lot on their plate.”

Yeah, but as he said, “I don’t think there’s anything that’s gonna faze them right now.”

Finally, did the best get saved for last? It would be hard to argue, although that Penn State-Stanford match would be hard to top.

Start with a two-set deficit comeback in a match that took two hours, 42 minutes, had 48 ties and 14 lead changes, four in the pivotal fifth set.

Ultimately, Washington (30-2) won 26-28, 23-25, 25-22, 25-18, 17-15.

Said USC coach Mick Haley in complimenting the Huskies, “I thought they hung tough under some great odds.”

“We were down 0-2. Any team can panic. Any team can think, oh it’s over. But just looking around the locker room there no doubt in anyone’s eyes,” said Washington’s Cassie Strickland, who had 11 kills and 15 digs. “It’s not over until it’s over and we knew we were just going to battle for every point, battle tooth and nail until the end.”

One reason they could was the incredible performance of outside hitter Krista Vansant.

She was the star of the day on day in which the stars shone bright: 38 kills in 81 swings, 10 errors, a .346 hitting percentage and a match-high 30 digs (USC’s remarkable libero Natalie Hagglund also had 30).

“I do it for my teammates,” Vansant said. “I do it for this program and what UW volleyball stands for. I’ll take a swing whenever they want to me to take a swing at the ball.”

USC had a star of its own in freshman outside Ebony Nwanebu, who had 30 kills with no errors in 53 swings to hit .566. The Women of Troy were playing on their home floor in the Galen Center and, up 15-14, got a perfect pass, perfect set, and seemingly the match-winning swing from big freshman Elise Ruddins. But she cut it too far to the left and it went out of bounds, setting up UW to score the last two points by substitute Gabbi Parker.

The senior had just returned to the lineup and notched two kills – just her second and third in a match that had 154 other kills – to win it.

“It’s awesome and I can’t describe the feeling of rushing the court,” UW’s Kylin Munoz said. “Coming back 0-2, that was insane, but we’re not satisfied just going to the final four. We want to win the national championship.”

Sixty other teams, of course, had that goal two weeks ago, at least 10 realistically.

But ultimately, after one of the greatest Saturdays in the history of the college game, Penn State, Wisconsin – yes, Wisconsin – Texas, and Washington will play for the honor.

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