VIDEO: 2013 National Champions
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Two days have passed since the 3-1 victory over Wisconsin at KeyArena in Seattle, but the image of Deja McClendon burying the championship-clinching kill and ensuing celebration will never get old.
McClendon's final point as a Nittany Lion solidified Penn State's fifth national championship in the last seven years and a record-tying sixth NCAA title overall.
The list of accomplishments for five-time AVCA Head Coach of the Year Russ Rose and the program is truly astonishing. In addition to five national titles in the past seven seasons, the Nittany Lions have gone 36-2 in the postseason since the 2007 season. The program's cumulative record since the start of 2007 is 234-20, which includes a string of 109-straight match wins from September of 2007 to September of 2010.
All five national championships in the past seven years have a unique story. The first came in Sacramento after a five-set battle with Stanford. The '08 crown featured an epic semifinal clash with Nebraska in Omaha during an undefeated season in which Penn State lost just two individual sets. The 2009 season's national title match victory over Texas may go down as the single greatest match in Penn State history, which also capped off an undefeated season. The '10 title came with a senior class - Blair Brown, Alyssa D'Errico and Arielle Wilson - that graduated with four national championship rings.
That brings us to 2013.
After an injury to setter Micha Hancock in the 2012 NCAA semifinals hindered the Lions in a 3-1 setback to Oregon, Penn State entered the season hungry to get back to the national semifinals.
The Nittany Lions opened the season with victories over Syracuse and Louisville before dropping a five-set match at Texas in the Nike Big Four Tournament. The Lions won the final seven non-conference matches of the season before opening Big Ten play against Michigan State on Sept. 27 in Rec Hall.
The Spartans took a 2-0 lead in the Big Ten opener. Penn State answered with two-straight set victories to send the match into a fifth. But the Spartans prevailed, handing the Nittany Lions just their fourth loss in Rec Hall during Big Ten play in the past 10 years.
The season turned on that night, though.
"I didn't think we wouldn't be able to win the national championship because of that match, but that a lot of them needed to look at why they were unable to play their best at a key time at home against a really good opponent," Rose said.
One night later, the Lions powered past Michigan with a 3-1 victory. They never looked back from there. Penn State won 19-straight matches to close out the regular season en route to winning its 10th Big Ten title in the last 11 seasons.
The season closed in a strong fashion. Rallying from one set down in front of a sold out crowd at Nebraska, the Lions stormed to a 3-1 victory in Lincoln. Winning on the road in a tough environment sent Penn State into the postseason with a great deal of confidence.
Wins over a LIU Brooklyn and Utah opened Penn State's 32nd-straight NCAA Tournament appearance. The Lions and Stanford remain the only two teams to have played in every postseason since the tournament began in 1981.
One week later, Penn State rallied from 1-0 down to defeat Michigan State in the regional semifinals, which set up a showdown against seventh-seeded Stanford for a trip to the national semifinals.
The Lions and Cardinal battled to a fifth set in what evolved into an epic clash among two of volleyball's heavyweights. Penn State trailed Stanford 9-6 in the fifth before Rose used a timeout. Out of the break, the Lions were not going to be denied.
Penn State scored the next six points in the decisive set on the way to punching a ticket to the national semifinals in Seattle.
Playing in the NCAA semis for the 11th time in program history, Penn State rolled over Washington, which was playing just four miles from its campus, with a truly dominant performance.
Saturday night's national title match, the Lions' ninth all-time appearance in the final, was next. Facing off against Wisconsin in the first all Big Ten national final, Penn State jumped out to a hard fought 2-0 lead before the Badgers rallied to make it 2-1.
Wisconsin took a 23-20 lead in the fourth and was just two points from forcing a fifth set, but the Lions were not done. A service error from the Badgers made it 23-21. With ice water in her veins, Micha Hancock stepped to the service line. The junior delivered four potent jump serves, two of which dropped for aces, before McClendon's kill clinched the program's sixth national title.
In six NCAA Tournament matches this season, the Nittany Lions dropped just four total sets. And the end result sent the team to a red eye charter flight home on Saturday night with a championship trophy bound for Rec Hall.
NCAA women's volleyball is an ultra-competitive sport at the Division I level. Winning one national championship is a remarkable accomplishment, let alone five in seven seasons.
With that in mind, the 2013 senior class will leave Happy Valley with two national titles. And what makes this year's team so unique is that the Lions got so many contributions from so many different players. Sure, senior starters Ariel Scott, Deja McClendon and Katie Slay played a central role in leading the Lions to the title, but it was a collective effort from everyone on the roster and staff.
The string of success Penn State Women's Volleyball has achieved since 2007 has raised the bar for expectations. Everyone in the volleyball world expects the Nittany Lions to win. But that's what makes Rose such a master at leading the program.
The outside world expects Penn State to compete for the national title every season. But Rose just works to get the most out of his players so that they are at their best in December. Sure, there is a bit of fortune involved in a national title run in any sport, but it is no coincidence the Nittany Lions win on the biggest stage.
"I want to win every game we play," Rose said. "So you want to get into situations where you can compete for a national championship. I thought we had a team last year that could have won it. We finished second numerous times that I thought we should have won it. So we work hard. Everybody works hard. It's not lucky that you get yourself into this situation and you have to really appreciate it."
Rose doesn't like to compare national titles. He looks at each team as a unique group. But in his eyes, the titles are not about him, they are about the players on the floor.
"They're for those individuals on that team that they'll have the rest of their life to look back on the journey that existed and the hard parts that existed with it because I don't want it to be easy. I want it to be hard," said Rose.
The players on the 2013 roster watched Megan Hodge, Christa Harmotto, Nicole Fawcett and Alisha Glass set the stage for a dominant run through the college volleyball world when they were in high school. When they signed to play at Penn State, they didn't feel pressure to win national titles, they just wanted to carry on the tradition of excellence.
"I think it's more just of a tradition, and that's why we came here," said junior Dominique Gonzalez. "We were getting recruited right around that time Coach was talking about, all those great players who came through the program, and they just left a great mark for us, and we just want to follow in their footsteps."
"You watched those girls when we were younger playing final fours and winning national championships," Scott added. "And when you're a volleyball player, that's what you strive to do. You want to go to the best programs and play and be the best player you can be."
With a strong corps of talent returning in 2014 and a superb recruiting class coming into the program, the future is very bright for Penn State women's volleyball.
For now, though, the Lions are setting the standard for success as they celebrate a fifth national championship in seven seasons.
Follow GoPSUsports.com's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony
NIttany Lion Women's Volleyball Sets the Standard
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