UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - For the first time since 2014, Penn State women's volleyball is back in the NCAA national semifinals, now just a day away from moving one match closer to a potentially historic ultimate outcome.
"Whatever sport you play, this is what you should be dreaming about," Penn State head coach Russ Rose said. "This is the platform, that's why you work hard, why you do the things you do to try and get yourself in a position to compete for a national championship and to be in this case, one of four teams left."
The NCAA national semifinal field couldn't be more stacked with perennial contenders, with the top-ranked Nittany Lions among three of four teams (Nebraska and Stanford) to have won it all in the last four years.
With individuals from nearly every team bringing NCAA championship experience at the highest level, there's no doubting both semifinal matchups have the potential to be among the most memorable.
Penn State has familiarity among both sides of the remaining contenders on each side of the bracket. The Nittany Lions knocked off defending NCAA national champion No. 3 Stanford twice in the early part of the season. Perhaps no opponent is more familiar than fifth-ranked Nebraska, a team that handed Penn State its only loss of the season so far.
"When that happened we had a lot to learn from it," senior Heidi Thelen said. "We just had to focus on getting back in the gym the next day and knowing that we still have an entire season. Coach told us in that moment, if you win the rest of your matches you can win the Big Ten and that's what we did, and now, he said if you win six more matches you can win a national championship."
With the Huskers owning wins in each of the last six outings, Nebraska also sent Penn State home in the NCAA regional semifinals last year, marking a second straight year the Nittany Lions departed the tournament in the round of 16.
"We know that our last two years we've gone out in the sweet 16 and it's something that we've always wanted to come back to the final four and make it to that final destination, but we're not done yet," senior first team All-American Simone Lee said. "That's always something we look to and hold in the back of our minds that even though we've reached our goal to be Big Ten champions and we've reached our goal to get to Kansas City, now let's reach our goal to win the national championship."
For Rose, among familiarity on the big stage and in the Big Ten, while it certainly helps, he looks toward the big picture.
"I don't look at it as anything other than an opportunity to do something hopefully that these players will remember for the rest of their lives," Rose said.
Instead, when in the historic main gym of Rec Hall he tells the team to look up.
"I tell them to look up and see a lot of banners," Rose said. "Some banners that have six or something championships - that a lot of people have come before them and worked really hard and they're representing the University and they're representing a lot of alumni who put a lot of time in when they weren't chartering and getting all the bonuses and gifts the players get today."
Sewed on to one of those banners though is 2008, the year a then-top ranked Penn State captured its second consecutive NCAA national championship with a straight set win against No. 2 Stanford to close out a perfect 38-0 record, a feat the Nittany Lions would achieve once again the following year.
To get to the title game though, the Nittany Lions took down a then-No. 4 Nebraska team in an epic five-set victory in front of an NCAA record crowd of more than 17,000 fans at the Quest Center in Omaha.
It was the last time the two teams have met in the NCAA national semifinals and surely one many Nittany Lion faithful won't soon forget.
That's not on the minds of this year's squad though, as the group of Nittany Lion seniors will look to punctuate their Penn State careers the same way they opened them up - with a national championship crown of course.
This year's Huskers have won each of their last 17 matches dating back to a 3-1 loss to Wisconsin in early October, earning a spot in the NCAA national semifinals with a four-set win against fourth-seeded Kentucky last weekend.
Among the best nationally at stifling their opponents hitting percentage, Rose noted the Huskers bring strength from the service line.
"I think the impact of their serve has a lot to do with limiting other people's offensive numbers," Rose said. "I think their floor defense is really good. They don't block a lot of balls but certainly [Briana] Holman and [Lauren] Stivrins are strong blockers in the middle and I think [Mikaela] Foecke and [Annika] Albrecht block well. They're just a good team. All of the players play well together. Their libero's good. They bring a couple of defensive kids to shore them up a little bit."
Four Huskers earned All-America honors this afternoon, including Albrecht, Foecke and Holman, alongside senior setter Kelly Hunter, who earned a first team selection.
"We're playing a bunch of seniors and they've been playing the same lineup all year," Rose said. "I don't think either team is hoping to do something different, I think both teams are hoping to play well and rely on their inherent strengths."
First serve between Penn State and Nebraska is set for 7 p.m. ET Thursday in the first of two NCAA national semifinals at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. The matchup will broadcast live on ESPN with Karch Kiraly, Paul Sunderland and Holly Rowe on the call.