Win streak adds to volleyball championship hype
Before the day's press conferences, the Penn State players sat eating and talking together. They looked loose and relaxed, laughing at each others' stories and reminiscing over moments during the season. On the podium, coach Russ Rose was his usual entertaining, thoughtful and occasionally sardonic self. When asked if he remembered what it felt like to lose (the Lions haven't lost since 2007), Rose replied, "Yeah. I'm married with four kids."
Relaxed demeanor aside, the Nittany Lions have much at stake Saturday night. Their win against Hawaii in a semifinal Thursday was their 101st victory in a row, the longest Division I winning streak in any women's sport. They have been ranked No. 1 throughout the entire season and are one of only two teams besides Stanford to have been invited to the NCAA tournament every year since its inception in 1981. They have won 17 straight NCAA tournament matches, dating to 2007, and the win Thursday night was also Rose's 1,000th career victory.
Just mention those numbers to the Penn State players. Much like the NFL's 14-0 Indianapolis Colts, they profess that going undefeated wasn't an outlying goal at the season's start. Instead, it's been more about focusing on the match ahead.
"Our team takes it one match at a time," senior Cathy Quilico said Friday. "I can't say every match we know we'll win, but we go in and prepare very well for each match."
"We don't like to talk about the streak," added Blair Brown. "Before you [a media member] said it, we didn't know what number we were at. We don't focus on it, and like Cathy said, we take it one game at a time, especially this time. We want this game."
That they didn't know about win No. 101 is a bit questionable, given all the hype around it. However, Rose is pretty matter-of-fact about the reality of that streak eventually ending. He just hopes it isn't Saturday.
"Losing happens all the time. It hasn't happened in a while in this program, but it'll happen, and when it does, we'll work on the things we need to get better for our next match."
For now, players and coach said Penn State-Texas will be an intriguing battle, regardless of the outcome.
"It'll be an interesting matchup because we're both so physical," Brown said.
"They certainly match us and surpass us in some of the physical aspects of the game," Rose said. "Juliann [Faucette] hits the ball as hard as anyone in college volleyball, Destinee [Hooker] has a high contact point. A number of these players we've recruited, so I'm very familiar with them. I think they're a very talented group and have all the right reasons to be in the position they're in."
Rose shied away from drawing too many similarities between the teams in increasing hype.
"I think maybe we're similar because the players are bigger players, but I wouldn't compare a 5-1 [player] and a 6-2 [player] and say they are similar," Rose said. "Each team has a dominant attacker and a middle attack. I think that the similarity is the teams have the same goals."
Indeed, Texas came to the podium next with a more businesslike tone. Coach Jerritt Elliott immediately pointed to the hype around the matchup, noting, "We know that this is the match that everybody associated with college volleyball wanted to see at the beginning of the year."
Texas has had an impressive season as well, at 29-1 and 19-1 in the Big 12. To return to NFL comparisons, much like the Minnesota Vikings, the Longhorns' one loss doesn't reveal many weaknesses. They are still very much a threat to every team they face, given all their weapons.
Earlier, reporters had fished for Penn State players to speak directly about Texas' Hooker, the 6-foot-4 three-time NCAA champion in outdoor high jump. While Rose pointed to Hooker's vertical abilities on her shots, he said the entire Texas team was a challenge.
Texas answered in a similar fashion when asked which Penn State players they'll target, drawing comparisons to earlier-season opponents.
"Nebraska is a good, strong physical team that we've faced, and Penn State has some tall players. Blair Brown, I think that we've seen others that relate to those players," Faucette said Friday. "We've been challenged, but they are the No. 1 team in the nation and are there for that reason."
Some stats to note: Texas has made 60 blocking errors to Penn State's 41; Texas has had 76 service errors to the Nittany Lions' 60. Penn State has totaled 1,723 kills while limiting opponents to 1,167; Texas has totaled 1,446 while holding opponents at 1,149. The statistical edge slightly favors Penn State in almost all instances, including its impossible-to-ignore win streak.
"College athletics is about emotion, being focused and competing on a high level," Elliott said. "Russ has gotten that out of his team night in and night out. People think it's easy when you have talent, but there's so much more that goes into it. Hopefully his streak will end tomorrow."