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Dec. 13, 2011
By Tony Mancuso
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - For the fourth consecutive season, the Nittany Lion women's volleyball team walked into Rec Hall on the first day of official practice in August with a target on its back.
After winning an unprecedented fourth straight national title at the end of 2010, the Nittany Lions entered the preseason as the No. 1 team in the nation. Despite graduating six seniors, including two All-Americans - Blair Brown and Arielle Wilson - expectations were very high from a fan base that had watched the Lions march through the postseason four straight seasons before hoisting hardware in the middle of December.
However, for a team set to field a roster with 13 freshmen and sophomores out of 17 spots, head coach Russ Rose knew heading into the season that 2011 was going to be a much different challenge than the previous four seasons.
"It'll be a new team with different learning experiences and a different path to where we have to go," said Coach Rose. "It certainly won't be similar to teams we've had the last few years where we'd enter a match and feel we've had the best player on the floor, and players with experience winning the big matches. It's an incredibly young group. They're going to have a huge learning curve out there."
Sure the Nittany Lions returned AVCA Freshman of the Year Deja McClendon and key contributors Ariel Scott and Katie Slay from the 2010 roster, but when the team walked onto the floor for its season opener against Oregon in the AVCA Showcase it was a very young, inexperienced group.
Penn State won the first set of the season before dropping three straight to Oregon. The 3-1 setback to the Ducks snapped a streak of 94 straight victories at home. One night later, the Lions battled back from a 2-0 deficit to knock off then-No. 2 USC inside Rec Hall.
The Nittany Lions finished the non-conference slate with a 7-3 record, which included setbacks to then-No. 3 Stanford (3-1) on the Cardinal's home floor and then-No. 10 Texas (3-2).
As was the theme throughout preseason practices, Coach Rose talked at great length during the non-conference slate about finding more consistency from his youthful roster.
Penn State then opened Big Ten play in Lincoln against rival Nebraska in the Cornhuskers' first match as a conference member. The 10th-ranked Huskers knocked off the Nittany Lions in a hard-fought five-set thriller in a sold out NU Coliseum. From there, the Lions rattled off 11 victories in their next 12 matches with the lone loss coming at the hands of then-No. 1 Illinois (3-2).
The Lions went 5-2 during the final stretch of the Big Ten season to solidify a second-place finish in the conference standings. Penn State tallied two very good road wins at Ohio State and Michigan State in the final week of the season, and it entered the NCAA Tournament with a great deal of confidence.
The eighth-seeded Lions cruised through their first two NCAA matches against Liberty and Delaware en route to a matchup against ninth-seeded UCLA in the Lexington Regional Semifinals. The streak of 26 straight postseason victories and aspirations of a fifth straight national title came to a close on Dec. 9 with a 3-0 setback to the Bruins.
Like all 32 previous matches during the 2011 season, the regional semifinals bout with the Bruins proved to be a learning experience for the youthful Nittany Lions who were looking to follow in the footsteps of the four previous teams that ended the year with a national title.
"I think many of the players that were part of those championship teams are all playing professionally right now," Coach Rose said after the match. "I thought each time a team was weakened by graduation, that you would hope that some of the younger players would pick up some of those things and I think there were some lessons passed along, but there were times where we had three freshman in the front row and three freshman in the back row and I think that's a learning curve."
The Nittany Lions committed 15 attack errors and nine service errors against a UCLA team that will play in the national semifinals. Young teams learn and grow from experiences like the one Penn State faced in the loss to UCLA. It is important to not lose sight of the fact that the Nittany Lions were an extremely young squad that managed to finish with a 25-8 overall record in 2011.
With that being said, everyone in the Penn State lineup from the UCLA match will be together during each of the next two seasons. McClendon and Scott led the Lions with 3.54 kills per set at outside hitter. Maddie Martin stepped up when the Lions needed her in the latter stages of the season. Slay led the team in blocking at 1.42 blocks per set in the middle. All four will be juniors next season.
Micha Hancock faced the challenge of running the Nittany Lion offense as a true freshman. She improved tremendously during the season, but Hancock will take another leap as a sophomore setter. The tandem of Aiyana Whitney and Nia Grant showed very good signs of what is to come in their sophomore season after strong showings in the NCAA Tournament.
Freshmen defensive specialists Lacey Fuller and Dominique Gonzalez showed glimpses of very good things to come in the back row. Sophomore libero Ali Longo led the team with 3.39 digs per set. The list of returning players goes on with Kristin Carpenter and Darcy Dorton.
Penn State has a long list of talented players poised to take a step forward in the offseason. The Lions will also add a talented recruiting class of incoming freshmen.
When practice resumes in August, Penn State will again have a different look, but it will largely be a more veteran look for 2012.
No one on the roster wanted the season to end at the regional semifinals last Friday, but the way 2011 ended for the Nittany Lion women's volleyball team was certainly a good motivator for the entire lineup set to return in 2012.