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Nittany Lion Legacy Lives on Despite NCAA Departure

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Penn State women's volleyball saw its 2017 season come to a bitter close Thursday evening. In a back and forth battle that saw everything from highs and lows to even a few head scratching moments, the outcome of the longest national semifinal matchup in NCAA history didn't favor the Nittany Lions.

"I'm not disappointed in the players or the university that I work at," Penn State head coach Russ Rose said. "I am certainly disappointed in, you know, the outcome of the match. I thought the kids played hard. And other than serving and some passing issues, I thought we were competing well in a tough environment."

After turning around at 25-18 loss in the opening set, the Nittany Lions settled in on the game plan and gritted out a pair of tight wins in the second and third sets before pinning the Huskers seemingly right where Penn State had intended to finish it off.  

The Nittany Lions came just one point shy of ending it all in the fourth set, but an error held off the win as the Huskers battled back to force a fifth and deciding frame. 

"I think we clearly had opportunities to win the match, but we didn't win the match," Rose said. "You recognize the efforts of the other guys and this business and you appreciate the efforts of your seniors, and we had a lot of kids that were seniors. Certain programs get judged by winning national championships and not just their day-to-day effort. The efforts that we've had over the course of time have placed us into a little different area." 

True to any Rose coached team, the Nittany Lions would not go down in an NCAA Tournament outing without a fight, weathering their fair share of swinging momentum shifts made all the most emphatic by the force of a record-setting crowd of nearly 19,000, clad in mostly red. 

"I thought there would be times when we were up and they would get back into it and then it would be really close at the end and then we'd be battling for deuce games," senior first team All-American Haleigh Washington said. "I think we had a lot of great fight at the end but it just isn't enough. You can't have fight and make a lot of errors, it just doesn't work."

Untimely errors came at seemingly the costliest moments, as the Husker defense narrowed the margin of error to the tiniest of slices for Penn State, keeping everything off the floor and forcing the Nittany Lions out of system with pressure from the service line.

In sets two, three and four, Penn State shot out to at least a 3-point lead in the early part of the frame before Nebraska came storming back to even the score before taking the Nittany Lions the distance. 

"I think we started off strong in a lot of our games, we had a lot of early leads, but I think we let those runs get away," Washington said. "We had to get that lead and maintain that lead and go back and forth and swing until the end of the game. Instead we get the early leads and they get to the spot and they get the run. That can't happen in this level and this game. They have to continue to sideout and hold the lead. It was just something we let slip away."

Perhaps no momentum shift was larger than the last, as a Husker kill sparked a 5-0 run that flipped a once 6-4 Penn State advantage into a 9-6 Nebraska lead.

"We were leading up until 7," Washington said. "It's not like the momentum was completely gone and they ran away with it in the fifth game. We were still battling but just couldn't hold on to that lead and maintain it."

Back-to-back kills from All-Americans Simone Lee and Ali Frantti proved not enough as Nebraska closed out a 15-11 win in the fifth set to end the match.  

More than the obvious sting of the final score, Penn State volleyball will forever have the contributions of yet another highly decorated senior class to reflect on long after this year's NCAA national champion is crowned.

Each blazing their own path to greatness across the last four years, Penn State's trio of All-Americans in Lee, Washington and Frantti close out their careers in the blue and white with more than 1,000 career kills, having scaled the record books and collected a vast variety of honors and awards along the way.

Their legacy won't be defined by the final score but rather by the things they've learned along the way, the joy they've brought to their coaches, the community and of course, the teammates they've impacted forever.

"Haleigh has definitely been the biggest mentor, I just went up to her and hugged her and she's so solid and she's so compassionate and just an amazing player," redshirt sophomore Tori Gorrell said. "Learning from Haleigh is obviously what I need to do, she just has so many shots. Simone and Ali, those two girls, they literally do it all, I could not imagine being in their position. They're so crazy good."

Tucked in the belly of the Sprint Center, void of the usual laugher and lighthearted energy, the Penn State locker room may have been silent postmatch, but the contributions of the 2017 senior class, will proudly prevail.

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