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National Championship Central: Preview Day in Oklahoma City

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photo (27).jpgOKLAHOMA CITY - The fifth-seeded Nittany Lion women's volleyball team (35-3) will play in the national title match on Saturday against BYU (30-4) at 7:30 p.m. ET (TV - ESPN2) in Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Penn State practiced for 90 minutes on Friday following a national championship preview press conference.  Take a look through Friday coverage from Oklahoma City as the Lions prep for their 10th national championship match appearance.

VIDEO: Friday Practice & Press Conference Highlights
Take a look through some video highlights of Friday's pre-national championship press conference with head coach Russ Rose, senior Dominique Gonzalez, junior Aiyana Whitney and freshman Haleigh Washington.

VIDEO: AVCA All-Americans & Micha Hancock Player of the Year
Seniors Micha Hancock and Nia Grant headlined four Nittany Lions who were recognized at the AVCA All-American banquet on Friday morning in Oklahoma City. Hancock and Grant were named first team All-Americans earlier this week, while freshman Ali Frantti and junior Aiyana Whitney were named to the second team. Frantti also earned National Freshman of the Year accolades. The most prestigious honor of the banquet went to Hancock, who was named National Player of the Year. She is Penn State's fourth National Player of the Year. Take an inside look at the ceremony.

Stat Breakdown:

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Noting Penn State in the National Title Match
- The Nittany Lions will be playing in their 10th national championship match.  Penn State is 6-3 in title matches, with victories in 1999, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013.
- Penn State's six national championships tie with Stanford for the most in NCAA history.  The Cardinal have won six titles and played in the final match 14 times.
- Penn State's combined record in seasons when it reached the national championship match is 347-21.
- In Penn State's three setbacks in the national title match, the Lions played five-set matches in 1997 (vs. Stanford) and 1998 (vs. Long Beach State).  The Lions dropped a 3-1 decision to Long Beach State in their first trip to the title match (1993).
- In the Lions' five national title match victories, they knocked off three opponents (Stanford in 1999, Stanford in 2008 and Cal in 2010) in straight sets.  The Lions beat Wisconsin in four sets during the 2013 season. Penn State beat Stanford in 2007 and Texas in 2009 in five-set matches.

Noting the BYU Cougars
- BYU is the first unseeded team to reach the national title match in NCAA Volleyball history.
- Saturday's title match marks BYU's first appearance in the national championship. The Cougars have played in the semifinals twice (1993 and 2014).
- BYU's road to the national title match has been an impressive one. The Cougars have knocked off 11th-seeded Arizona (3-1), sixth-seeded Florida State (3-1), 14th-seeded Nebraska (3-0) and second-seeded Texas (3-1) en route to the national final.
- In all, BYU has won 12-straight matches heading into the final match of the season.

What They're Saying:
- Head coach Russ Rose - "It's not about me. It's about the players. It's about Penn State. We're all doing a job and we all have different institutional expectations or personal expectations, but I thought Dom and Megan were the best two players on the court last night. And Dom flies under the radar for a number of years. And we've discussed that. And we go back to a conversation obviously that she remembers that I don't when she was 14 where we talked about the value of winning versus the value of statistics."

- Dominique Gonzalez - "They're a strong team, worked their way to get here, they deserve to be here.  That caught our attention. They play hard, they're recipient. I think that's something that we really noted.  And they have some pretty tall players up in the front row, so that's also something that we've noted."

- Aiyana Whitney on the BYU block - "I think the best strategy for that is to avoid it as best we can and try and hit high and work our way around it. I think swinging into the belly of the block, as Coach would put it, is probably not the smartest way to approach our match tomorrow."

- Haleigh Washington on the BYU block - "Being in the middle mostly, I want to focus on holding their middle so I can give my outsides and the pins an opportunity to really hit one on one, open up more shots for them, work hard in transition so there's more shots for them, and then getting one on one in the middle as well."

- Russ Rose - "It's all about what the players do. I've been fortunate that the university has allowed me to be who I am. And I haven't had to play games to make other people happy that I could do my job the way I want to do it.  And if we go a different direction and somebody wants something different, then that's how it is. It happens to coaches every day. So before I came to Penn State, I was accepted at BYU to get my EDD. So I received a teaching assistantship. I was ready to go. I met with the resident bishop and then I got the Penn State job."

Feature Story Corner

Link: Lions Rise to the Occasion, Top No. 1 Stanford

Match Day
With the Friday festivities over, it is now time to focus on national title match day in Oklahoma City.  The Nittany Lions will practice mid-day on Saturday before the 7:30 p.m. (ET) first serve against BYU.  Stay tuned for much more coverage from the NCAA Women's Volleyball Championship.

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Lions Rise to the Occasion, Top No. 1 Stanford

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10634520.jpegVIDEO: Megan Courtney One-on-One Interview

The Nittany Lion women's volleyball team added another chapter to its storied legacy Thursday night on the sport's biggest stage.

Like clockwork, the Russ Rose-led Nittany Lions routinely find a way to peak when the stakes are highest.

Going toe-to-toe with No. 1 Stanford, the Nittany Lions used a gritty effort to knock off the Cardinal, 3-1, to earn a spot in the national championship match for the 10th time in program history and sixth time in the past eight years.

Heading into Thursday's national semifinal bout, the Nittany Lions knew they would be in for a slugfest against the top-ranked Cardinal. In five of the last eight meetings between the two schools, the matches have gone five sets.

While it did not go five sets, Thursday's match was no different. Neither team led by more than four tallies following Penn State's decisive 25-16 victory in set one. But the Lions clawed their way to big swings, pivotal digs and timely blocks en route to set victories in the third and fourth frames after Stanford evened the match at 1-1 with a 25-23 win in set two.

"Well, as is the norm, when we play Stanford, it's always a great match with players having to step up and make plays and grind, and every year we find ourselves in that situation with them," Rose said.

Junior outside hitter Megan Courtney was the star among stars on Thursday, notching 23 kills on .321 hitting, along with 16 digs and five blocks. When the Lions needed a big play, senior setter Micha Hancock went to Courtney. And time after time, Courtney buried kills to lift the offense.

"Playing Stanford, there's a big tradition of Penn State-Stanford, and it goes way back further than any of us have played," Courtney said. "Coach has really instilled us the tradition. It's a grind. Stanford is a great team. They're the No. 1 team in the country. Well deserved."

"She had a good rhythm tonight," Rose said. "Took some great swings. Had a lot of confidence. She took a couple of swings I'm sure she'd like to take back. But she plays the full game. She's our best volleyball IQ individual. And the expectations are really high for her."

AVCA Freshman of the Year Ali Frantti was also superb for the Nittany Lions, especially early. Frantti had six kills on .750 hitting in the first set en route to a 16-kill performance in her first outing at the NCAA semifinals.

"I thought Megan was the offensive star of the night. And Ali really battled and did a great job," Rose said.

While Courtney and Frantti provided a boost offensively, Thursday's win was a byproduct of the work from every Penn State player who stepped on the floor. That's what makes this team unique and special. The Lions got contributions from all 10 players who participated in the match. Credit the leadership from Hancock as the team's floor general for keeping the unit focused from start to finish.

"I thought we had a nice game plan, and sometimes the ball rolls your way, and we had a real good effort tonight," said Rose.

Penn State is headed back to the national title match for the second-straight season. The Lions will battle with unseeded BYU on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN2.

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VIDEO: NCAA Semifinals Post-Match with Megan Courtney

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OKLAHOMA CITY - The fifth-seeded Nittany Lion women's volleyball team powered past No. 1 Stanford inside Chesapeake Energy Arena on Thursday for a 3-1 victory in the NCAA semifinals.

Junior Megan Courtney fueled the Lions with 23 kills. Hear from Courtney following the match as Penn State punched a ticket to play in the NCAA title match for the 10th time in program history.

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VIDEO: NCAA Semifinals Post-Match Press Conference

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OKLAHOMA CITY - Head coach Russ Rose and Megan Courtney, Micha Hancock and Ali Frantti address the media following Thursday's 3-1 victory over No. 1 Stanford in the NCAA semifinals.

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NCAA Match Blog - Penn State vs. Stanford

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VIDEO: NCAA Semifinals Scouting Report with Salima Rockwell

OKLAHOMA CITY - Welcome to live coverage from Penn State women's volleyball's NCAA semifinal bout against No. 1 Stanford inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.  Stay tuned throughout the match for interactive coverage from courtside.

Live Blog NCAA Volleyball Semifinals - Penn State vs. Stanford

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VIDEO: NCAA Semifinals Preview with Associate Head Coach Salima Rockwell

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MATCH BLOG - Penn State vs. Stanford

OKLAHOMA CITY - The Nittany Lion women's volleyball team is set to collide with No. 1 Stanford on Thursday inside Chesapeake Energy Arena at 9:30 p.m. ET (TV - ESPN2) in the NCAA semifinals.

The Nittany Lions practiced on Thursday morning in preparation for the match against the Cardinal.  GoPSUsports.com previewed the match with associate head coach Salima Rockwell.

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NCAA National Semifinals Preview: Stage Set in Oklahoma City

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10630963.jpegOKLAHOMA CITY - Making its seventh NCAA semifinal appearance in the past eight seasons, the fifth-seeded Nittany Lion women's volleyball team (34-3) is primed for a matchup against No. 1 Stanford (33-1) on Thursday (9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2).

10630966.jpegPenn State practiced in Oklahoma City on Tuesday evening and again on Wednesday in preparation for the showdown against the Cardinal. The Nittany Lions marched past UCLA and Stanford in the regional round of the NCAA Tournament to punch a ticket to the national semifinals.

The Nittany Lions and Cardinal battled to a five-set match on Sept. 5, with Stanford notching a 3-2 victory. Both teams have improved since the early-season meeting, and head coach Russ Rose is looking forward to the matchup.

"It's great to still be playing," Rose said. "Our roster is a little different than the roster we had on the floor when we played them last. Certainly, they are much improved from the video I just saw (of recent matches)...They are setting really quick right now to the pins. And it's a veteran team."

In a matchup pitting two of the sport's best, Penn State and Stanford are the only two programs that have appeared in the NCAA Tournament during each of its 34 years in existence.

"This is Stanford and Penn State," Rose said. "They have been champions six times, and they haven't been to the final four in six years. This program is ready to get back where they have been before. They had the No. 1 recruiting class a few years ago, and these girls are juniors right now. They are hungry and very good."

The winner of the Penn State-Stanford match will move on to the national championship match against either BYU or Texas on Saturday in Oklahoma City.

"It's going to boil down to the teams that play the best; it's not always the best players," said Rose. "I think if we play our best, we have a chance. If we don't play our best, we got hot at the right time last year and had a veteran team."

Wednesday was open practice day for all four teams remaining on the draw. Penn State practiced for 90 minutes on Wednesday afternoon following a preview press conference. Take a look through Wednesday coverage from Oklahoma City as the Lion prep for their 12th NCAA semifinal appearance.

VIDEO: Wednesday Practice & Press Conference Highlights
Take a look through some video highlights of Wednesday's practice and pre-NCAA semifinal press conference with head coach Russ Rose, Micha Hancock and Nia Grant.

Stat Breakdown:

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Photo Galleries:
Travel Day | NCAA Semifinals Practice Day

Feature Story Corner:

Ending a Career Where It Started
By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUSports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- An emotional, motivated Micha Hancock sat at the podium on Monday afternoon inside the Rec Hall Media Room reflecting on a stellar career wearing Penn State Blue and White.

The senior setter, competing in her final collegiate matches this week, took a deep breath, as she thought about the kind of legacy she would leave behind at Penn State.

10630989.jpegHancock's accolades include AVCA First Team All-America honors, All-Big Ten honors, the 2013 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, 2013 Big Ten Setter of the Year, an ESPY nomination and much more.

But what does it all mean to her?

"It's crazy for me. I never dreamt of being at a program like this," Hancock said. "I had no idea what Penn State was about. It hasn't really hit me. I'm still saying goodbye to things here. You spend four years with most of the same girls, they're family. It's emotional for sure. I feel like a girl that had great teammates, worked hard and accomplished some cool things. I feel really blessed."

There are many 'lasts' approaching for Hancock. This weekend will be her last time traveling with the team, her last time in the national semifinals and her last time suiting up in the Blue and White. And what better place to experience these final moments as a Penn State women's volleyball player than in Oklahoma City, 14 miles from where she grew up.

The Edmond, Oklahoma, native is looking forward to ending her collegiate career at home, but said she isn't letting that get in the way of the task at hand.

"I definitely am excited. I don't really know how it feels and I'm not going to know how it feels until I step foot on Oklahoma soil again," Hancock said. "For me, the most important thing is trying to win one game at a time. It's awesome that I'm at home, but it also kind of creates a distraction. And I'm not willing for that to be a distraction for me."

She plans to keep her emotions at bay by relaxing, staying focused and taking it one day and one practice at a time. Although the stakes are higher, her mental preparation for this match does not differ from any other match.

"I am going to focus on the same routine I've been doing all season. Talking to the freshmen, talking to my team, [telling them] how important practice is, how important [the start of the game is]. Keep it normal," Hancock said.

Hancock's preparation will continue until Thursday evening, when the Nittany Lions take on Stanford in the NCAA semifinals. These two programs, rich with tradition, are familiar foes this season. Earlier in the year, the No. 1 seeded Cardinal defeated Penn State in five sets. But both teams have gained experience and Stanford will be seeing a different lineup from Penn State with the addition of Haleigh Washington in Penn State's starting lineup.  

As a senior leader, Hancock will help Washington and the other freshmen prepare for this match. She stressed the importance of letting the freshmen play their game. She plans to lead them one point at a time, by encouraging them to get excited, play with emotion and above all else, have fun.

"The final four is mostly about fun. You're there for a reason, so if you have fun, it's definitely going to help you out," Hancock said.

While many seniors' goals this week are to pass their finals and graduate this weekend, Hancock's week will be different.

"[My goal is] to win. That's basically all," Hancock said. "[My goal is] to play some good volleyball against Stanford, hopefully get the W and see what comes about whoever we play."

Hancock is scheduled to graduate this Saturday, but will be unable to attend the commencement ceremony in Happy Valley. She said considering what's ahead this week, she is not disappointed about missing her college graduation.

A fierce competitor since the day she stepped on campus, Hancock's legacy speaks for itself as she closes in on the final days of her Penn State career.

Match Day
With the Wednesday festivities over, it is now time to focus on match day in Oklahoma City. The Nittany Lions will practice mid-day on Thursday before the 9:30 p.m. (ET) first serve against No. 1 Stanford. Stay tuned for much more coverage from the NCAA Women's Volleyball Championship, including live blog coverage from Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Follow GoPSUsports.com's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

VIDEO: Women's Volleyball Travel Day to Oklahoma City

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OKLAHOMA CITY - The fifth-seeded Nittany Lion women's volleyball team traveled to Oklahoma City on Tuesday in preparation for Thursday's NCAA semifinal match against No. 1 Stanford.

Penn State departed the University Park Airport just after 1 p.m.  The Nittany Lions arrived in Oklahoma shortly after 2 p.m. CT before getting set for practice. But prior to the team's evening practice at the University of Central Oklahoma on Tuesday night, the Lions stopped at the home of senior Micha Hancock in Edmond.  Take a behind the scenes look at the travel day to the NCAA semifinals, including scenes from the team's visit to Hancock's home.

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VIDEO: NCAA Semifinals Preview - One-on-One with Micha Hancock

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - GoPSUsports.com catches up with senior setter Micha Hancock leading up to Penn State's trip the NCAA semifinals. An Oklahoma native, Hancock is headed home to compete in a Penn State uniform for the final time.

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NCAA Volleyball Tournament Content Central: Lions Head to Regionals

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w_volleyball_blog.jpgUNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The fifth-seeded and Big Ten champion Nittany Lion women's volleyball team (32-3) travels to Louisville, for a showdown with 12th-seeded UCLA (22-11) in the NCAA regional semifinals on Friday at 7 p.m. (Live coverage on ESPN3).

10618375.jpegThe winner of the Penn State-UCLA match will move on to face either No. 4 Wisconsin (30-2) or Ohio State (23-11) on Saturday in the regional final at 4 p.m. live on ESPNU.  The Nittany Lions have played against all three teams on the draw in the Louisville Regional this fall. Penn State owns a 4-0 record against UCLA, Wisconsin and Ohio State. The Lions swept UCLA on Sept. 6 in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge.

"We've played UCLA and Ohio State and Wisconsin, as well," said head coach Russ Rose. "It's not one of those situations where you are looking to gather information on teams that you haven't seen play at all. We are familiar with all of the teams and recognize that all of the teams are very good. We hope that they feel the same way about us."

Penn State enters the weekend after sweeping Siena and Dayton inside Rec Hall in the opening two rounds of the tournament.  The Lions have won 16-straight matches heading into the weekend. That streak includes 15-consecutive 3-0 decisions. Penn State has not lost a set since Oct. 17 at Purdue.

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 16 years.  Penn State has played in the Regional Final match in 13 of the 15 seasons.

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

"There's 16 teams left and that's just the way the weekend goes and at the end of the weekend, there will be four teams left, and your goal is to always try to be one of those four teams that's still standing," Rose said.

VIDEO: NCAA Regionals Preview Video

Regional Semifinals Statistical Rundown

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Feature Story Corner

Familiarity Surrounds Lions in Louisville Regional
By Anita Nham, GoPSUSports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State will be seeing an all too familiar scene in Louisville this weekend as the three teams remaining in the regional alongside the Nittany Lions are teams that they have previously played before earlier this season. Those teams include 12th-seeded UCLA, fourth-seeded Wisconsin, and Ohio State.

10618379.jpeg"We didn't know until late on Saturday night who we were playing [in the regional semifinals], so we're fortunate that we've played UCLA and we've played both Ohio State and Wisconsin, as well," said head coach Russ Rose. "It's not one of those situations where you're looking and gathering information on teams that you haven't seen play at all, you know. We're familiar with all of the teams and recognize that all the teams are very good and I hope they feel the same way about us."

After straight set victories over Siena and Dayton this past weekend at Rec Hall, fifth-seeded Penn State will meet 12th-seeded UCLA in the NCAA regional semifinals on Friday at 7 p.m.

This will be the second time that these two teams meet this season, as the Nittany Lions faced off the Bruins earlier this year in the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge on Sept. 6 in California. Penn State came out with a three-set win that day.

"[UCLA has] a lot of talented players," said coach Rose. "We saw them beat a very strong Illinois team and then they had a good season in the Pac-12 that sent 10 teams into the tournament. I think it's an indication that UCLA is very good. We'll have to play well and our players are aware of that. There's no real surprises to them."

By playing UCLA again, the women's volleyball team is using that to their advantage.

"It helps [to play a team we've played before] because we know what we're good at," said freshman Haleigh Washington.

Though the knowledge on UCLA is useful, Penn State will continue to focus on adjusting their strategies and techniques against their opponents.

"[UCLA] developed just like we've developed," said Washington. "Their hitters have gotten better, smarter shots. Their serving has probably gotten more aggressive. Defensively, I'm sure their block has gotten stronger, so you can't ever just say, 'Well, we beat them once and so we can easily beat them again.'  We got to keep that in mind that they've improved and be ready to watch film and see what other coaches and teams have done against them and just adapt."

Coach Rose echoed Washington in that every team makes adjustments throughout the season.

"UCLA is the one that has to learn two new teams, Ohio State and Wisconsin, where we get to at least have some sort of familiarity," said coach Rose. "We won't have to spend as much time [learning], but all teams have changed throughout the season."

Alongside Penn State and UCLA in Louisville are two Big Ten rivals - Wisconsin and Ohio State.

The Nittany Lions defeated Wisconsin in the Big Ten Opener on Sept. 24 to start off conference play with a 3-0 win in Madison.

The women's volleyball team also defeated Ohio State in three-straight sets on Oct. 28 and Oct. 31.

Even with a familiarity factor for all three teams, the leadership and preparation from the upperclassmen remains that same.

"[The preparation from the seniors is] about the same as every weekend," said Washington. "We have a really, I don't want to say consistent schedule or regiment, but we prepare for each game the same way, whether we're playing a team like Rutgers or a team like Siena or a team like UCLA or Wisconsin, or whoever; we prepare the same way. We go hard in practice, we make sure we're doing what we need to do defensively and offensively, and seniors are telling us the same thing - work hard, do what you know how to do, and give it your all."

It will be a reunion of sorts for the Nittany Lions this weekend, but that will not be affecting their play at all.

"It's a regional," said Rose. "There's 16 teams left and that's just the way the weekend goes and at the end of the weekend, there will be four teams left, and your goal is to always try to be one of those four teams that's still standing."


Excitement and Energy Fueling NCAA Regionals
By Samantha DelRosso, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- For some Penn State women's volleyball players, they are heading to their first NCAA Regional. But for others, they are heading to their last. The expectations differ between these two groups, but their mindset is the same - be excited, bring energy, work together and win.

10618377.jpegSenior Nia Grant is looking forward to her final appearance in the NCAA regional round. As a senior, she said she feels excited, but also feels the urgency to win it all. In preparation for the weekend, Grant received advice from former teammates who, not too long ago, were preparing for the NCAA regionals themselves.

"I talked to a couple seniors from last year and they were saying how there is no better way to go out than to win the whole thing. I can definitely agree with that," Grant said. "That would be an awesome way to leave Penn State."

Grant also noted that the entire team, from freshmen to seniors, is excited and ready for the next round of the tournament. Although it's the freshmen's first time in the NCAA Tournament, Grant said they are prepared for this level of play.

"We know we have a lot of good players. And our freshmen this year are very strong minded and I'm really excited to see what they do this weekend," Grant said. "I think we're ready as a team."

Grant and her three fellow seniors have helped guide the freshmen to prepare them for the tournament. Freshman Alli Frantti said she feels confident at this point in the season, but it's the seniors that have really helped her and the other freshmen feel ready to play in the NCAA regionals.

Competing at a neutral site means there is not much crowd involvement. Grant said in order to keep the energy up without having the crowd behind them, the seniors have to do their part in bringing the energy.

"The seniors need to have energy. Haleigh [Washington] always has energy, Alli [Frantti] has energy. It just has to come from us and us wanting to keep the energy up to win," Grant said. "We can't look to anybody else [for energy]. It has to come from us."

Energy is something that the freshmen have been able to consistently provide this season. Haleigh Washington's energy and spirit on the court cannot be ignored. The freshman middle hitter said she plans to continue playing with her high level of energy to help the team in the best way she can.

"[If we are lacking energy], I have to be goofier, I have to have bigger dance moves, I have to find a way. Because there's always a way for energy to leak," Washington said. "That's the thing about energy. It's incredibly contagious."

Washington said she is excited about her first trip to NCAA Regionals because she is looking forward to seeing how the team plays together.

"I'm excited to see what the team is going to do as a whole. Not just individual performances. I'm just really excited to see how we click and mesh and mold and really come together as one unit," Washington said.

Although it's her first time competing in the NCAA Tournament, she said it feels like any other tournament to her because the preparation is the same.

"I have been playing in big tournaments forever. The game's the same, it's the same outlook, it's the same mentality. You have to be confident, you have to go into it knowing what you know," Washington said. "The number of people watching is different and the stakes are higher, so the pressure is a little different, but it's still just volleyball. It's just playing the game you love."

Head coach Russ Rose is no stranger to the regional round of the NCAA Tournament. He said being in the NCAA draw is a culmination of this season's efforts.

"You play all year long to get yourself into the tournament and then you have to navigate different challenges when you get in the tournament. I'm excited about seeing how they play," Rose said. "I respect the challenge and appreciate the opportunity to go there and do the best we can."

Follow GoPSUsports.com's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony