Penn State volleyball aims to avenge loss in 2012 semifinals


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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- To remember the years of the conference championships or the Final Fours, Penn State women's volleyball coach Russ Rose must be in Rec Hall, staring up at the banners. This isn't pride. It's not like Rose thinks there are so many he can't remember them.

There are many of them, though: All together, Rose has led Penn State to 11 Final Four berths, five of which have turned into national championships.

Rose remembers little of those feats because he attempts to stay in the present. And the present, this season's Final Four, is Seattle. The semifinal opponent is Washington. Should Penn State win tonight, it will face Texas or Wisconsin Saturday for the national championship.

"I don't look at the past," Rose said. " ... I worry about this group of people, trying to have them be ready to play and tell them what they need to do to be successful as players, as teammates."

Penn State volleyball
 
■ Match: Penn State vs. Washington in NCAA semifinals, Key Arena, Seattle.

■ When: 9:30 p.m.

■ TV: ESPN2.

■ Also: Texas vs. Wisconsin, 7:30 p.m.

This group of Nittany Lions features a veteran nucleus that played on the 2011 team that didn't make the Final Four and the team that lost a year ago in the semifinals to Oregon.

"Just the feeling of that season, knowing we could have done more in the gym, done more at the end, has fueled us through the entire season and continues to fuel us now," outside hitter Deja McClendon said.

At times, McClendon has been Penn State's best player this season. Other times, Micha Hancock, Ariel Scott, Katie Slay, Megan Courtney or Nia Grant have led the Nittany Lions on offense.

"When you have the ability to have multiple players who can do it, it kind of takes the pressure off one player who has to do well or the team suffers," Rose said. "That, to me, is one of our strengths: I can't say who's going to be the leading scorer."

Penn State's depth has helped it in the NCAA tournament, which has produced a series of matches Rose calls stressful in a good way. By being under pressure, he believes his players have learned more about themselves and improved -- not that the stress has been all good.

In the Sweet Sixteen, Penn State lost the first game to Michigan State, the most recent team to beat the Nittany Lions in late September. In the Elite Eight, Penn State needed five games to beat Stanford. It also lost the first game of that match.

"When we start slow or we get in a hole, those are things we can't do, and we fight and we grind to win matches and that makes us better as a team," Hancock said. "But it's kind of a wake-up call. Even getting those wins, we understand you can't start slow with a really good team, and you can't get a lead and give it away. You can't be mindless."

In other words, you have to close. As much as his teams have changed over the years, Rose is sure to repeat this lesson.

"I just tell our players if you have game point or it's the end of the match, I don't want to see you tipping or hitting a roll shot," he said. "I want to see you going up there and hitting the ball hard because that's the sort of thing you remember later in life."


Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.

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