By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The showering of blue and white confetti falling to the court is an image that won't soon be forgotten at Penn State. For the 13th time in program history and the first since 2014, Penn State women's volleyball is headed back to the NCAA national semifinals.
The top-ranked Nittany Lions swept Michigan State 25-23, 25-13, 28-26 in an all-Big Ten regional final affair at Rec Hall on Saturday night.
Although ending in a sweep, the Nittany Lions had to grind it out until the final point, with both the first and third sets hotly contested.
The two teams battled back-and-forth in the first set with the Spartans taking an 18-16 lead late in the frame before a critical dig from sophomore Kendall White on an Autumn Bailey attack shifted the momentum in favor of the Nittany Lions.
"That's a great attacker on the other side, she led the match in kills," head coach Russ Rose said. "It wasn't a surprise to us that she was going to get the ball and she took a great swing. Certainly trying to dig Bailey inside the block was something that we focused on."
Arriving at 2-0 after the intermission, by the time the third set arrived, 25 points weren't enough to clinch the set for either side. The Nittany Lions staved off two set points before rallying to win the set and the match.
Penn State's blocking was a huge advantage in the win as the Nittany Lions out-blocked the Spartans 14.0 to 8.0. Senior Haleigh Washington led the way with a match-high 10 blocks, including three solo stuffs, while fellow senior Heidi Thelen added four.
"We work really hard as a team and we did a great job keying in on what we were actually planning," Thelen said. "We did that and stuck to our game plan, listened to the coaches and fed the ball to Kendall."
Being in the Big Ten, both the Spartans and Nittany Lions were familiar opponents coming into this match with the Nittany Lions winning the first two regular season matches in four sets each.
"We had three great matches with them this year," Rose said "We have great respect for Michigan State and we're excited about the results of the match."
A couple of key Nittany Lions made impacts in the third set, as Penn State once again showcased its depth when called upon.
Senior Lainy Pierce had a critical service ace late in the third set, but perhaps the most notable substitution was for redshirt junior outside hitter Nia Reed.
"Lainy came in and served well," Rose said. "Nia [Reed] brings really good energy when she comes in. She's a really offensive-minded player and the energy is good. Everyone likes her because she is a good kid."
Reed had three kills on six attacks for a .500 hitting percentage, all at the very end of the third set.
"I was excited to go in and be a part of my first elite eight," Reed said. "I'm happy that my team has enough confidence in me to go out and make a play. They're not worried about setting me because of that confidence."
The win puts the Nittany Lions just two matches from a potential record-setting eighth NCAA national championship.
This year, Penn State has cleared the regional-round hurdle, one it had stumbled upon in the two previous seasons, including an especially heartbreaking loss to Nebraska in last year's regional semifinals, that brought back some all too familiar scenarios.
"Not all experiences are good, but they're all valuable," Rose said. "When Simone got blocked at match point, I'd seen that before. The difference is we were able to rally and come back to win the match."
For this senior class, winning a national championship in their freshman year is something that has driven them to increase their work ethic.
"We went freshman year and I didn't see the court, but it was still an awesome experience," Thelen said. "Now, actually being a part of it on the court is something different and really exciting. I'm happy to spend these moments with my teammates and we want to win, so we're going to work hard."
The Nittany Lions will face none other than No. 5 Nebraska in the NCAA national semifinals, a team that not only ousted them from the tournament a season ago, but also handed Penn State its only loss of the 2017 season in the Big Ten opener.
Revenge, however, is not a word in Penn State's vocabulary.
"We're going to play our game, do what we can do and expose our own strengths. It doesn't matter who's on the other side of the net," junior Bryanna Weiskircher said.The match will take place Thursday night in Kansas City, with the winner moving on to Saturday's NCAA national championship game.