Undefeated champ Penn State could be best volleyball team ever

OMAHA, Neb. -- It's an unavoidable topic when a team repeats as NCAA champion, goes undefeated -- in fact, loses just two sets in an entire season -- and has the national player of the year among its four first-team All-Americans.

Is Penn State, which dispatched Stanford 3-0 for its second consecutive national title Saturday night, the best women's college volleyball team ever?

You ask the question of coach Russ Rose, the phlegmatic guy in the sweater who sits with his clipboard on the sidelines. The guy who's been doing this at Penn State for 30 years, actually, and now has three NCAA titles.

But were he on the old "What's My Line?" show, the panel probably would guess he was an IRS auditor or toll-booth clerk. Something that requires not just a dearth of giddy excitability but an absolute lack of it.

"He'll clap every once in a while in practice, and maybe during games," said Christa Harmotto, one of Penn State's All-Americans who comes off as an especially joyous bon vivant even when not in comparison to Rose. "You know, he's got that dry humor about him. He's very focused on what he does and cares a lot about Penn State. And it shows through us, though our emotions and how we play the game.

"He might not always be cracking smiles, but I can tell you he's a happy person. And he's really happy right now."

OK, we'll take her word for it. But Coach Rose, back to this "best ever" tag …

"This group had the potential to do certain things, and they kept having to hear me talk about what their potential was," Rose said. "Other people can talk about those things. … We never talked about them. My goal was for people to get better individually."


Let's ask somebody else, a guy who has a very good perspective: Nebraska coach John Cook, whose Huskers won the only two sets that Penn State lost this season (in the semifinals Thursday).

"I had two teams like this Penn State team that seemed to have everything going for them -- in 2001 and last year," Cook said. "Where everybody was saying they were both 'maybe the best team ever' and all those labels. And both those teams, in the defining moments, when it counted most, couldn't come through.

"What these guys did, to dominate like they did … I just have a tremendous amount of respect for what they accomplished. If you've been through it, you know how hard it is. There are some special kids on that team, like [Nicole] Fawcett, who were keeping them all together."

Fawcett, a 6-foot-4 senior outside hitter, was named national player of the year by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. She had 10 kills and 11 digs Saturday as she and her senior teammates finished their time in Happy Valley with a 135-8 record.

"It's extremely hard," Fawcett said of repeating as national champion. "But the pressure, I don't think we ever let that affect us."

[Repeating is] extremely hard. But the pressure, I don't think we ever let that affect us.

-- Penn State's Nicole Fawcett

Saturday's final was a rematch of last year's title game, when the Nittany Lions beat Stanford 3-2. That match went down to the wire, but Saturday's felt more like a Penn State coronation throughout. The Lions won 25-20, 26-24, 25-23 -- and what passed for drama was an error at the scorer's table in the second set that delayed play for an absurdly long time.

As the players stood around waiting, Stanford All-American Cynthia Barboza joked across the net to the Lions, "How about if we play rock-paper-scissors for this point?'"

As good as Penn State was, though, it would have won that, too. Leading the way on this team of all-stars was junior Megan Hodge, daughter of two volleyball players. She had 16 kills and 14 digs.

The Cardinal players had to watch someone else get the trophy for the third consecutive season. Making it just a little worse, the postmatch obligatory balloons and confetti were released from the ceiling of the Qwest Center only on the side of the court where Stanford was -- not on Penn State's side.

So the Cardinal players sat on their bench looking out at the celebratory accoutrements resting on the floor like the remnants of a New Year's Eve party nobody showed up for.

In truth, this championship match was "supposed" to be a party for a group that didn't make it: Nebraska, which fell to Penn State in the semifinals. Even so, the "party-goers" still showed up -- a testament to the people of Omaha and the sports fans in this state.

In the heart of Huskers country -- an hour from the Lincoln campus -- in the building where Nebraska won its third NCAA title two years ago, the event sold out again in anticipation of a similar celebration. The Qwest Center was pretty packed (14,299) although most of the observers were understandably subdued.

The Cornhuskers rallied from a 2-0 deficit in Seattle to beat Washington in their regional final, guaranteeing the Qwest Center a carnival atmosphere for Thursday's semifinals.

Nebraska then fell behind 2-0 to the mighty Lions. But when the Huskers came back to send the match to a fifth set, the 17,000-plus fans went into such hysteria that you could actually hear them outside the arena.

Not that anybody wanted to be outside these past few days in Nebraska, with the icy roads Thursday and temperatures plunging to near zero Saturday (not counting wind chill).

When Cook woke up Saturday and saw the frigid forecast, another kind of chill ran through him: What if the fans, still heartbroken for his Huskers, used the weather as a good excuse to say home?

They didn't, though. Here in Nebraska, they love to watch great volleyball. And they knew they'd see that from Penn State.

The Nittany Lions finished as 38-0 champs. So, Coach Rose, one more time: Best ever?

"I'm sure that other people will have more opinions," he said. "It doesn't make a difference. These guys know what they did, and they'll have that for the rest of their lives."

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.