SEATTLE -- Noise?
Certainly when Penn State faces Washington in Thursday night’s NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship semifinal, it will be loudly pro-Washington inside Key Arena.
“I think there’s noise in life,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said, “and I think the people that are successful ignore the noise and do what they’re supposed to do.”
You can bet that all four teams that will be playing can tune out the noise.
And it won’t just be Penn State (32-2). Even Washington (30-2), the host, will have to deal with a sold-out building, although it’s safe to say most of those in attendance will be rooting for the hometown Huskies, who go to school about five miles away.
“I hope we have a huge fan base that comes out,” said Krista Vansant, the Washington junior outside hitter who had an incredible 38 kills and 10 digs when her team got past USC last Saturday night, 17-15 in the fifth set. “The community has been coming up to us since the beginning of the season saying, ‘We bought our final four tickets, we hope you guys are there.’ We just take it as a motivation factor, I think. It’s never added pressure.”
Maybe not for her, but the 13th-year coach, Jim McLaughlin, said yesterday even his wife reminded him she had floor seats for the event.
Don’t worry, however. His pressure is coaching against a program in Penn State that has won five championships, including four in a row from 2007-10 and lost in last year’s semifinals. And Rose, in his 35th year at Penn State, and McLaughlin are longtime good friends.
“It’s tough in a way because he’s a good friend and we go way back,” said McLaughlin, who coached Washington to its only title in 2005. “But you prepare like you do and you put the emotions aside and you just want to play as well as you can.”
Perhaps, but there’s more to it.
“I just hope we beat them so I can bug him the rest of the summer about it,” McLaughlin said.
In the other semifinal, between defending national-champion Texas (27-2) and the surprise participant Wisconsin (27-9), perhaps things will be a bit more sedate in the stands, but not likely on the court.
The prevailing thought is that Texas, champion of the Big 12 will make short work of the seventh-place Big Ten team. Wisconsin lost in the 2000 title match and hasn’t been back to the final four since. And earlier this season, who could have imagined it, especially when the Badgers were 20-7.
“You have a choice when you’re losing,” Wisconsin first-year coach Kelly Sheffield said. “You can find ways to get better or you can sit there and make excuses and feel sorry for yourselves.”
The other three teams here have six losses combined, three fewer than Wisconsin.
“I don’t know, we tend to look at things positively,” Sheffield said with a laugh. “Maybe we’re the toughest team here if losses make you tough.”
Penn State and Wisconsin were two of the seven Big Ten teams to make the round of 16. Many observers have predicted Penn State to win it all since the preseason, but Wisconsin is definitely the so-called Cinderella of the bunch. Things got better for the Badgers when the fourth-seed, Missouri, and No. 5 Florida were upset along the way.
“We played both of those teams,” said Rose, whose Nittany Lions lost at Texas in September in the Nike Big 4 Challenge, 15-10 in the fifth set but swept Wisconsin in league play, 3-0, 3-0. “Texas is an incredibly offensive-minded team that has made great strides in their defensive play. They're predominantly an outside attacking team with Bailey Webster and Haley Eckerman, incredibly athletic as well as skilled.
“And Wisconsin is a team that plays really hard, and that's probably put together a little bit differently than some other teams. They have two or three really good back row players. They have a great young freshman setter, and it's a team that's playing really hard.
“You can't get here without playing hard. And I was impressed when we played them earlier in the year. I thought they were just a really fun team, looked like a fun team to coach because they were skillful and they played hard and they had a lot of spirit.
“And Pete Waite [who coached at Wisconsin through last season] put together a really fine team and recruiting class, and Kelly was able to kind of reap the benefits of those things.”
Wisconsin is different, for sure, and plays defense with the best of them. It relies on a 5’7” outside hitter in Deme Morales who gets set by a freshman, Lauren Carlini, who is not only seven inches taller but occasionally the tallest player on the front row for her team.
Talented and powerful Texas, meanwhile, has spent the entire season with the so-called bull’s-eye on its chest as it tries to win the school’s fourth title (1981, 1988, 2012). It’s a team whose coach tinkered with all sorts of lineups and relies on incredible front-row size and hitting ability and an improved defense.
“This is not the Stanley Cup and we’re not trying to go and keep that Cup,” 13th-year Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “They're trying to go out and earn another one. When you get your team in that mindset, I think that's the key to what we're doing.
“And we feel good about what our lineup is now after I think the seniors know better than anybody that every preseason I'm trying a bunch of different lineups. This is not the first year we've tried that.
“Maybe I'm a little crazy in my head, but I'm trying to learn as much as I can about this wonderful group of talent that I have, and solidify that and we work hard to that.”
Texas seems to have accomplished that. After all, the Longhorns have won 23 matches in a row, including last Saturday, where it was pretty darn loud in Lincoln, Neb., when they beat Nebraska before more than 8,000 fans.
And this just in, but the decibel levels get right high in the Big Ten, in which Penn State won by going 19-1.
“It gets loud over at the football field,” Rose said. “I mean, again, it's noise. It shouldn't prevent people from performing talents that they have.”
And it probably won’t in what promises to be another great day of a what has been a great NCAA Tournament.