LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Oregon, Texas and Michigan know it will take a near-perfect effort to knock off top-seeded Penn State at this weekend’s NCAA volleyball championships.
Still, no one is handing the Nittany Lions the title.
Michigan and Texas have lost matches to Penn State this year, but all three challengers are confident they can not only play with the talented Nittany Lions, but have the ability to win it all.
Third-seeded Texas (27-4) will face unseeded Michigan (27-11) in Thursday night’s first semifinal, with No. 5 Oregon (29-4) facing Penn State (33-2) in the other. Michigan and Oregon are making their first Final Four appearances; Texas is making its fourth in five years.
Penn State doesn’t have many flaws and is seeking its fifth national title in six years. The Nittany Lions have won 36 of 39 sets since losing to Nebraska Oct. 28.
“They’re ranked No. 1 for a reason,” Oregon coach Jim Moore said. “I said very early in the year that anybody who thinks they’re going to win a national championship has to go through Penn State.”
Asked what worries him about the Nittany Lions, Moore added, “what doesn’t worry me? They can do things physically that no one else can do.”
The Nittany Lions bring size and a lot of movement, but the Ducks counter with quickness and improvisation. Oregon’s attack, directed by all-Pac 12 junior setter Lauren Plum, features multiple offensive options similar to calling an audible in football.
The up-tempo strategy and flexibility has helped the Ducks lose just two sets in four tournament matches and achieve the best season in school history. Oregon’s approach also paid off against Penn State in last year’s season opener, as the Ducks beat a Nittany Lions team coming off their fourth consecutive title.
Though that match has little bearing on Thursday, Moore said it was a breakthrough for his players’ confidence.
“It sort of let them know that they were good. It was special,” Moore said. “However, it has absolutely zero correlation to what’s going to go on. ... It was the first match of a year ago, and it’s going to be the last one for one of the two of us this year.”
Penn State wants to make sure it survives and advances.
The Nittany Lions have been ranked fourth or higher in the AVCA Top 25 Coaches Poll all season and reclaimed the top spot on Nov. 19. They’re coming off a regional run during which sophomore setter Micha Hancock broke Misty May’s NCAA tournament record with 22 service aces, including five in Saturday’s victory over No. 11 Minnesota.
While Hancock is part of a stout Penn State offense including Big Ten player of the year and NCAA regional MVP Ariel Scott (3.73 kills per set) and junior outside hitter Deja McClendon (3.24), the Nittany Lions’ defense might be their biggest strength.
Their only dropped set in the past month came in the regional final against the Golden Gophers, and the Nittany Lions believe there’s room for improvement.
“I don’t know if a lot of teams overlook defenses, but I know our team doesn’t,” said McClendon, a Louisville native. “Coach (Russ Rose) really emphasizes that defense wins matches. I think against Minnesota it really helped a lot. Defense really matters.”
Michigan takes the same defensive approach.
The Wolverines have been on a roll since a two-match losing streak last month. Michigan responded with a six-match surge, including a sweep of rival Michigan State in the regional semifinal and a four-set upset of second-seeded Stanford in Saturday’s final.
That surge has landed Michigan in new territory with their first Final Four appearance, but a familiar place in the KFC Yum! Center. The Wolverines beat host Louisville here in the second round.
The Wolverines are also a team that measured itself against Penn State. They point to their midseason loss to the Nittany Lions for helping them turn things around.
“It was kind of like the moment we realized that we actually could hang with teams,” said Wolverines junior outside hitter Lexi Erwin, the Berkeley regional MVP. “It was more of like not worrying about your mistakes. That was one of those games where we went into the locker room down 2-0, so we’re like, `let’s go all out from here.’ “
Michigan will try to impose its will during its semifinal match against Texas, which swept Florida and USC in the regionals. The Longhorns’ offensive includes outside hitter Bailey Webster and utility player Sha’Dare McNeal, while sophomore middle blocker Khat Bell (1.36 blocks per set) leads the defense.
Since a 6-3 start that included a loss to Penn State, Texas has won 21 of 22 matches. Longhorns coach Jerritt Elliott credits the run to a shift from a 6-2 to a 5-1 formation that he said has provided better ball control and helped his team play at a higher level.
A Texas victory over Michigan could set up a rematch against Penn State, a match where the Longhorns know they’d have to play at their highest level.
“At some point if we end up facing them,” Elliott said, “our team is going to have to step up and say, `we are tired of losing to Penn State’ and make those plays.”