No, it wasn’t easy, not the way so many probably expected after Penn State advanced to the title match by crushing Washington in the national semifinals.
And, yes, Wisconsin was that good by season’s end, a scrappy shorter-than-they-should-be bunch that caught fire at the right time and wasn’t going away quietly, especially not after knocking off No. 1 Texas.
But when it was all said and done, meet the new boss.
Same as the old boss.
Penn State is atop the college volleyball world when it matters for the fifth time in seven years and the sixth time overall.
Sure, had Wisconsin not missed those two serves late in set two, maybe things would have been different. But they weren’t, and Penn State’s 25-19, 26-24, 20-25, 25-23 victory before a sold-out KeyArena crowd where most were rooting for the underdogs left the Nittany Lions No. 1 once again.
Russ Rose, now with 35 years at the helm behind him, won the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship in 1999, 2007, '08, '09 and '10 and now number six ties him with Stanford for the most all time.
Speaking of Stanford, it was just a week earlier that Penn State and the Cardinal played a match for the ages, a five-setter in which Rose’s women rallied from down 9-6 in the last game to advance to the final four.
Penn State lost in the national semifinals last year to Oregon in a match that saw super-serving setter Micha Hancock tear ligaments in her ankle. In this year’s national championship match, she was a one-woman wrecking crew. That final stat line of three service aces, four serve errors, five kills, and five hitting errors doesn’t do her justice.
Or, as Wisconsin first-year coach Kelly Sheffield said, “She’s what, a junior? Jesus.”
Wisconsin led 23-21 when its only senior, Annemarie Hickey, who said after the match that she dislocated her shoulder in the fourth set but played on, had a service error.
It was Hancock time. She served an ace. Served again and a rally ensued, ending with big senior middle Katie Slay burrying an overpass for her 14th kill of the match.
After a timeout, Hancock, whose lefty jump serve bottoms out and cuts left like a Vaseline-covered spitball, hit another ace. And then the match ended with senior outside hitter Deja McClendon poking a loose ball to the floor for the national-title point.
“I didn’t want to go to five,” Hancock said. “I don’t think anyone did.”
She admitted that having it tough might have been better than winning easy.
“It’s a little sweeter,” Hancock said. “Yeah.”
Penn State (34-2), which never lost again after losing in five at home to Michigan State on Sept. 27, won its final 25 matches.
“Amazing. Period,” said Penn State senior right side Ariel Scott, who had a match-high 21 kills in 51 swings for a .294 hitting percentage. “I couldn’t be happier. There was no better way to end my collegiate career. So I’m ecstatic.”
So, too, was Rose, who refused to compare his six titles.
“It’s like asking me about the birth of my children, how do they rank, you know what I mean? How many kids do I have, honey,” Rose jokingly asked his wife in the back of the interview room, “six, eight,?”
Actually, he and Lori Rose have four sons.
“I don’t rate it, you know what I mean. I’m not trying to set the bar high. We’re just trying to compete. We want to grind. This is what we do.”
Few teams grinded better down the stretch than Wisconsin, a team that featured a 5'7" outside hitter in the remarkable Deme Morales (who had 15 kills in the final) and a middle liberally listed at 5'11" in Dominique Thompson (16 kills in the final). And the Badgers have perhaps the brightest young star in the game in freshman setter Lauren Carlini.
The Badgers, seeded 12th and a team most of the college volleyball world hardly ever expected to be there, dispatched Texas 25-19, 25-18, 26-28, 25-23 in the national semifinals.
“We never expected that we were going to get this far,” admitted Carlini after the win over reigning champs Texas. “We all just gathered together and we made a goal and we just fought back and I don’t know…
“Everyone is just so proud of each other and we know we’re one of the tightest teams out there. And we’re just ballers. We go out and we play. Let the cards fall where they may. I don’t think anyone is happier than us right now.”
For Texas (27-3), the loss marked not just the end to a 23-match win streak, but the end of being national champion.
“Tonight felt like it was the first match of the season. We just never got comfortable,” said UT coach Jerritt Elliott, who was making his fifth trip to the final four in six years. “When you make 23 hitting errors and have 46 kills, it’s tough to win any match.”
Those errors came from some unlikely sources. The Big 12 Player of the Year, Haley Eckerman, led with 17 kills in 60 swings, but she had nine errors and hit .133. Khat Bell had only two errors but just seven kills. Bailey Webster had seven kills and three errors.
And part of that was that Wisconsin’s defensive players were tough as always. Hickey had 21 digs and defensive specialist Taylor Morey added nine in a match where the back line seemed to know where to be at all times.
In the second semifinal, Penn State’s 25-14, 25-13, 25-16 mauling of the University of Washington guaranteed the Big Ten Conference a national champion and a sudden end to U-Dub’s hometown ride.
“It’s tough. It stinks,” said Huskies coach Jim McLaughlin, whose team won the 2005 NCAA title.
The Nittany Lions’ combined 75-43 margin of victory was the widest straight sets national-semifinal victory since the NCAA went to 25-point rally scoring in 2008. McClendon led with 11 kills in 23 swings with just two errors while hitting .391. She also had a 13 digs. Scott contributed 10 kills with no errors in 18 swings for a .556 percentage, and Slay was eight for 11 with no errors (.727) and four block assists.
Washington’s junior star, outside Krista Vansant, who the next day was named the AVCA National Player of the Year, had seven kills in 28 swings and hit .179.
Heading into the final Rose knew just how good his opponent was even though Penn State beat the Badgers 3-0 in both their league meetings this season.
“Wisconsin is really good,” Rose said. “They made it to the finals. They could have won the national championship. The story is how good those kids played.”
Perhaps, but when it was all said and done, no matter what Rose says or how many kids he has, the story was Penn State.
And Hancock, the junior from Oklahoma City, which just happens to be the site of next year’s final four, was almost giddy.
“People say you can’t put it into words and you really can’t,” said Hancock.” A lot of people have said it’s the best feeling in the world. It really is, because to prove you’re the best team in the nation is a pretty cool thing.”
Originally published in February 2014