Loose Penn State serving up another NCAA volleyball title run

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Micha Hancock, a setter for Penn State's women's volleyball team, has noticed a change in her coach, Russ Rose. With each step to the Final Four, she says, he has loosened up a bit.

She sees it as a 50-50 thing. The team has earned his trust, and he gives it back. There's also the fact that he knows how to handle these kinds of situations. Penn State (33-2) is back in the Final Four, playing Oregon (29-4) tonight at KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky., and looking for its fifth national championship in six years after failing to win a year ago for the first time since 2006.

"Going into this season," Hancock said, "we were just prepared to show people what we're really about."

Third-seeded Texas (27-4) will face unseeded Michigan (27-11) in the first semifinal.

Last season, Penn State was young, ridiculously young. And Hancock said the team couldn't use that as an excuse. But the Nittany Lions primarily had used four sophomores and two freshmen. They went 25-8, and lost in the Sweet 16 to UCLA.

"We were what we were, and we lost to UCLA," Rose said.

UCLA went on to win the national championship. Penn State dealt with its first non-championship season since 2006.

After taking time off for winter break, they regrouped in the new year. They were still young. That hadn't changed.

Though they wouldn't be as inexperienced as in 2011, the 2012 team would still feature just two seniors and four juniors. It would have seven sophomores and four freshmen. The majority of the team wouldn't have experienced a Final Four and almost all of it wouldn't have factored significantly in a Final Four.

By spring, they were practicing three hours a day, developing more comfort playing alongside each other. Hancock saw the defense improve. It was better on the net and off, increasing its number of digs.

When the season began, junior Ariel Scott said the team had the attitude that they should compete for a national championship, given their talent and the way they had worked. Rose considered his team ready for this level once it navigated through a treacherous stretch in its league schedule.

In October, Penn State played on the road in six of eight matches. Three of those road matches went five sets, and the Nittany Lions won two of them.

"We have a really tough conference," Rose said. "The players to me showed their mettle."

And now here they are again. Losing just one set in the NCAA tournament, Penn State is in its 10th Final Four. Still young but now proven, Rose says he always keeps "the screws pretty tight" but wants them to enjoy the autonomy he'll grant them in their final games and on this final trip.

"I'll sit in the front seat of the bus, the front seat of the plane, so I'll have no idea what goes on behind me," Rose said. "I've always felt it's for the players and not for me. I'll find a nice place to have dinner and a steak and a cigar."

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Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, Twitter: @mdent05.


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