Juan Crespo: After winning 4 straight national titles, which were led by a senior class in 2010 that had never lost a tournament game, Penn State was swept in the Sweet 16 by eventual national champion, UCLA. But in 2012, things are back to normal for volleyball in Happy Valley with a veteran team, leading Penn State to win the Big Ten and being the overall #1 seed in the tournament. How has mindset of this team changed from the previous years when they were consistently winning back-to-back titles?
Cari Greene: I think the biggest difference between this year and the dynasty years (though they're not too far removed) is that this team definitively knows what it's like to end early, on a loss--and none of them like it. Penn State was the overwhelming favorite for the National Title in 2008 and 2009, but 2010 is similar to this team in that preseason, everyone knew they'd be good--but they didn't know they'd be THIS good. So, this year they're playing with a bit of a chip on their shoulder (as much as they can be, being #1) and trying to prove once again that they are the nation's elite. Also, I'm sure that Nebraska coming in and winning the conference title in the Huskers' first year in the Big Ten really got to the team, and they were out to prove that it won't be that easy for a new team to come in and dominate.
JC: Penn State is first in the Big Ten in both hitting percentage (0.300) and their opponents hitting percentage (0.138). If Kentucky, Minnesota, or Purdue want to beat Penn State, how are they going to stop Penn State and get around their blockers and defensive specialists?
CG: See, that's the thing about Penn State--they've developed a pretty deep roster with very, very few weak points. In the first years of the dynasty, our weakness was defense--and coach Russ Rose has significantly upped the talent game in the back court, as well as cultivated more all-around players like Courtney and, in the past, Megan Hodge. The last two years, I'd have to say setter was our weakest position--in 2010, despite winning the NC, we were playing a DS (Kristin Carpenter, a senior this year who now doesn't even start on the squad) as a setter, and last year about a month in we switched to then-freshman Micha Hancock, who's solidified herself as the setter for the next few years. She's really grown into the position, and with another year under her belt at the collegiate level, has become rather good at that position.
I know that hasn't really answered your question, but I'm not sure there's much that those teams can do to actually beat Penn State--often times, like in their two losses, to Nebraska and Oregon State, it's actually Penn State that beats themselves. If they get themselves out of position, start making hitting and serving errors, and if Hancock doesn't spread the ball out enough, they can beat themselves up enough to let another team in. If Penn State plays their game, with their talent and depth and coaching, very, very few teams, if any, can beat them.
The one weakness in the Penn State game this year is the serve. We've had more serving errors this year than I ever remember seeing in the past, and in the past when we've had jump servers (Alyssa D'Errico and Roberta Holehouse were two of the best), they dial it down to regular, low-pressure serves in high-pressure situations. We don't have that this year. Hancock doesn't have a backup serve--it's all BOOM all the time. And that can be a scary proposition when she's having an off-service night--or it can be a delightful one, when on (like in our first round NCAA match, when the Nittany Lions led 21-0 to start the second set--all on Hancock's serve).
JC: Last time Penn State played in Mackey Arena, they beat Purdue 3-1. Despite hitting above 0.400 in the first 2 sets, Penn State squeezed with wins in the 3rd and 4th sets with hitting percentages of 0.286 and 0.152 and struggled to finish Purdue (luckily for PSU, Purdue happen to play worse in that game). How can Penn State overcome this sluggishness they faced in Mackey last time this weekend during the regional games?
CG: In order to survive the regionals, Penn State just needs to not beat themselves up and overthink their game. Coach Rose is an excellent volleyball coach (as his coaching record indicates), but he's at his best in December. He should have done his part by now--it's going to be up to the players to play the game the way they know they can, and prove that those four years in a row weren't a fluke of that specific group of players.
The last time the Nittany Lions were in West Lafayette, as well, was their first road trip since their loss at Nebraska (the night before they took on the Boilermakers, they were in Bloomington against the Hoosiers). They had come off three weeks of home wins, and it's never easy being on the road in the Big Ten nowadays, because the overall level of competition on the conference has risen so much. Also, Thanksgiving break had started, and who knows how much that played into it? I don't know. I'm just excited that the region that we're in is in the heart of Big Ten country, and not in Florida or California this year!
JC: Juniors Katie Slay, Ariel Scott, and Deja McCleandon are 3 of Penn State's best front court players. How will Kentucky and Minnesota/Purdue be able to slow down this trio that has given almost every opponent trouble?
CG: I've actually been pretty disappointed in McClendon this year, but some of that may be because she's done so well in past years (B1G freshman of the year two years ago) and we all had raised expectations for her. She's had some pretty off nights, hitting negative some times, and for some reason Hancock still sets her when she's cold. I'd prefer to see them switch it up and not feel locked into the juniors if the option isn't there for them.
Ariel Scott, on the other hand, has far surpassed any expectations I had for her coming in, and she's been quite awesome, with a great swing and touch. She can put down some excellent angles and, unlike McClendon, tends to not be as streaky.
The third junior you mentioned, Katie Slay, has only just started to really be more of an offensive weapon this year, after two years of mostly blocking (one glaring instance against this, however, is the fact that she had the NCAA title-winning point as a freshman in 2010). Her hitting percentage is the best on the squad, and I don't think it's close, and is one of the best in the nation. She's typically not Hancock's first (or, most times, even second) choice, but she definitely makes the most of her touches and is the best blocker we have up front to boot.
JC: Megan Courtney has had an electrifying freshman year, outperforming some of the veterans on the team. What kind of spark has she provided in her first year as a Nittany Lion and did you expect to see this kind of production from her this early in her career?
CG: Megan Courtney is the volleyball crush du jour for the guys on BSD. She's provided the kind of spark that Deja McClendon did in 2010, and that Darcy Dorton did in 2009--but in addition to being a great hitter, she's done remarkably well in the back court as well. Typically, freshman come in taking big swings but college coaches have to mold them into being more all-around players (many times, this isn't even complete in college, and even more coaching on that front has to happen if players want to make the US National Team or play professionally). I didn't expect to see this kind of all-around production from her this early, though I probably should have--Russ Rose said preseason that he's never had a player with a higher volleyball IQ than Megan Courtney. The man kinda knows what he's talking about. As of now, they sky's the limit for Courtney and I'm excited to see her anchor this team for the next three years.
JC: Finally, what is your prediction not just for the PSU/Kentucky game, but the entire West Lafayette Regional?
CG: Oh, gosh. It's very difficult to not fall into the stereotypical, brash, over-confident Penn State homer when it comes to women's volleyball (and, now with Cael Sanderson, wrestling). So, I'll say that I'll be very surprised if we don't win the region. For the first match up, I think the Nittany Lions win in straights--perhaps dropping the second set, if it goes to four. The Wildcats and Nittany Lions have had two common opponents--Louisville and Nebraska--and Kentucky lost both of those in four. Penn State, on the other hand, swept the Cardinals in Louisville (McClendon's hometown), and split home and homes with the Huskers.
Then, it comes down to Purdue or Minnesota. The Nittany Lions have played each time twice, and for each series won one game in straights and the other dropped one set (ironically, they played the Golden Gophers better in Minnesota than at home). To be honest, I'm hoping that the Purdue/Minnesota match goes to five so whomever wins will be more tired for the Saturday matchup on ESPNU--and if that happens, I like the Boilermakers chances versus the Gophers at home. This is December, though, and Russ knows the Big Ten--so I think whomever makes it through that match loses to the Nittany Lions on Saturday, and we'll likely face the Cornhuskers in an All-B1G semi a week from Friday.
Thank you Cari, and best of luck to the Nittany Lions this weekend! But not too much, after all we want Purdue to advance to the Final Four too ;)