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NCAA Volleyball Tournament Central: Lions Head to Regionals

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The second-seeded and Big Ten champion Nittany Lion women's volleyball team (30-2) travels to Lexington, Ky., for a showdown with Michigan State (23-11) in the NCAA regional semifinals on Friday at 5 p.m. (Live coverage on ESPN3).

9540572.jpegThe winner of the Penn State-Michigan State match will move on to face either No. 7 Stanford (26-5) or No. 10 Minnesota (29-6) on Saturday in the regional final at 4 p.m. live on ESPNU.  The Nittany Lions split with the Spartans during the regular season, winning at East Lansing, but dropping the conference opener at Rec Hall.  Penn State's 3-1 setback to Michigan State was its lone loss during conference play.  The Lions swept Minnesota in 2013, winning 3-2 in Happy Valley and 3-0 in Minneapolis.

Penn State enters the weekend after sweeping LIU Brooklyn and Utah inside Rec Hall in the opening two rounds of the tournament.  The Lions have won 33 of their last 36 sets.  Penn State enters the weekend attacking at a .314 clip, led by All-Big Ten outside hitters Ariel Scott (3.18 kills/set) and Deja McClendon (2.92 kills/set).

Since the NCAA Women's Volleyball Tournament began its current 64-team setup, the Nittany Lions have advanced to the third round of the tournament all 15 years.  Penn State has played in the Regional Final match in 12 of the 15 seasons.

The Big Ten Conference has been tremendous throughout the 2013 season.  Having seven teams remaining in the draw during the second weekend of the tournament speaks volumes about the depth of the Big Ten.  In addition to Penn State, Michigan State and Minnesota in the Lexington Regional, Nebraska plays American in the Lincoln Regional and Illinois, Purdue and Wisconsin are all still alive in the Champaign Regional.

The NCAA field has been trimmed to 16 teams.  Penn State's quest for a return to the national semifinals goes through Memorial Coliseum this weekend.  First up is a clash with Michigan State on Friday.

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Feature Story Corner

From the eyes of head coach Russ Rose

Lions to Face Michigan State in Regionals
By Samantha DelRosso, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Penn State women's volleyball team defeated two teams last weekend that they hadn't seen this season. This weekend, however, will be very different. The Nittany Lions will face a very familiar foe in the NCAA regional semifinals on Friday.

9540568.jpegNo. 2 Penn State (30-2) will play Michigan State (23-11) for the third time this season on Friday. Minnesota, another Big Ten squad, is also still alive in Penn State's quarter of the bracket. This means that there is a possibility that the Nittany Lions will face the Golden Gophers on Saturday. Having already played these teams this season helps in match preparation, head coach Russ Rose says.

"[Seeing these teams again] removes the communicating with other schools trying to find information on [teams]," Rose said. "We played  [Michigan State] a month ago. We are at least familiar with them, as well as Minnesota."

The Big Ten has seven teams left in the tournament, which is the most of any conference (PAC-12 has four). Rose said the strength of the Big Ten comes from its challenging schedule.

"These schools are a lot tougher having played back to back nights against good teams on the road, on football weekends, and tough travel conditions. I'm a big believer that the conference makes us all stronger. Everybody [in the Big Ten] cares," Rose said.

Rose said without even factoring in the fact that Michigan State beat Penn State at home earlier in the season, Michigan State proved its talent after beating Kentucky at Kentucky in the second round of the tournament. He said the Spartans are a good team because of how they are put together. The team plays hard and they are coached very well.

"They had some great wins this year and one of those was beating us when we were No. 1 in the country. I shouldn't have to say much to our players about the strengths and merits of playing Michigan State," Rose said. "The record this year is 1-1, so this match gives [the teams] the opportunity to play another match. And Deja needs to upgrade her winning record in the state of Kentucky." 

Although the Nittany Lions have seen the Spartans play before, they know it will be a challenge facing off against the talented players on the Michigan State squad.

Senior outside hitter Lauren Wicinski has tallied 400 kills this season. Rose said she is a "terrific offensive player." Senior middle blocker Alexis Mathews has 139 blocks this season and touches close to 11 feet.  Rose said that when Mathews is "on", it causes the team a lot of problems.

"In the first match [against Michigan State], [Chloe] Reinig was very good. In the second match, [Allyssah] Fitterer was somebody that we didn't have an answer for, so I think they're all good," Rose said.

This year's tournament is the last shot for the seniors. Rose said that the seniors have a lot invested in this program, even those who haven't played very much.

"Maddie Martin has won some matches for us during her career when she was healthy and we need her. Erica Denney is a really good volleyball player with a great mind who has run into some physical challenges. And Maggie Harding, nobody cares more about what we've got going on," Rose said.

It's an win or go home postseason event, and Rose knows it will be a challenge against a familiar Big Ten foe.

"It's how you play, not who you play. When you get to a Regional, all of the teams are hungry, all of the teams are putting behind that they're tired or that they're sore, or that they have academic woes to worry about," Rose said. "Everybody is fired up about the possibility of competing for a National Championship."

The Nittany Lions will face the Michigan State Spartans at 5 pm on Friday in Lexington, Ky. (ESPN3).

From the eyes of the players

Nittany Lions Motivated to Compete in NCAA Regional Semifinals
By Chelsea Howard, Student Staff Writer
As the Penn State women's volleyball team advanced to the NCAA regional semifinals in Kentucky, the players are bringing more motivation than ever to close out a strong season in the quest to bring home a national championship.

Sophomore Megan Courtney played in the tournament last year and was on the court when the team faced a loss in the national semifinals. Having that experience behind her has helped the outside hitter prepare for what the rest of this tournament will bring.

9533602 (1).jpegFalling short of their goals last year left a feeling that they have not been able to forget. Instead, the players have used that as their strongest motivator as they continue to advance in the tournament.

"Last year I was happy to be in the final four and play for Penn State, but losing in the final four and losing with the teammates that I've been with the entire time is a feeling I never want to feel again," Courtney said.

Learning from last year's championship season, Courtney and her teammates are determined to continue battling through the tournament to a different feeling this time around with her teammates - a feeling of success.

"We also have teammates - like Deja (McClendon) and Katie (Slay) who have experienced the winning and also the losing so they know what it takes and what we have to do to get to that point and not have that feeling again," Courtney said. "That's basically what's driving me because that feeling is the worst feeling in the world and they know what it's like when that feeling is the best feeling in the world."

In order to reach that "best feeling in the world", the Nittany Lions know that they will all have to work together as one team. They will have to put each player into the position where they can play their best and help each other to make the best plays, instead of relying on just one player.

"The really good thing about our program is that one player doesn't have to carry the weight of the team all the time," Courtney said. "If Deja's having a great day defensively, then it's my job to have a great day offensively - it's like a give and take. If Slay is blocking well, we have to put Slay in a position where she can do what she's good at."

After their win against Utah in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the players saw exactly what makes the team work together. They will use that match to help build their confidence as they continue to advance.

"Especially for Megan who played really well in that match, I think it's good for our younger players to be confident going into the next match," McClendon said. "I think for the seniors it's good to know that we can be consistent because that's our job as older players."

For the six seniors, this tournament is their final chance to prove they have the high level of confidence to play at their best, the consistency between the players needed to advance, and the determination to get the job done with this group of girls.

"There's definitely an urgency because it's our last chance," Slay said. "This is the seniors' last chance to play with a lot of the younger girls on our team so there's definitely an urgency because I want us to do well. I know we can do well if we play together. It's really exciting in that regard because the possibility for greatness is there."

As the Nittany Lions are on the road for the first time during the national tournament, they will play Michigan State for the third time this season. Since the players have already matched up against them during Big Ten play, they know that the Spartans have made some adjustments, but they also know of a few things to look out for.

"They're still a little bit different and changed a few things," McClendon said. "But it does help knowing how we played against them in the past and what matchups their going to go to as well as their go to player - we know her pretty well."

In their last meeting against Michigan State, the Lions won, 3-0 (25-14, 25-18, 25-20).

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

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