Top-seeded Penn State women’s volleyball (33-1, 19-1 Big Ten) is back on the big stage of the Final Four. The program is among the sport’s most dominant — reaching this point 13 times, including eight appearances in the last 11 years, for an NCAA-record seven national titles.
It’s the first time the Nittany Lions have reached the national semifinals since 2014 — falling in the Sweet 16 each of the last two years.
Playing in front of large crowds in professional arenas has become part of the Penn State experience — something that this team has missed out on in recent years. In Kansas City’s Sprint Center Thursday night, the Nittany Lions will be where they belong.
“Soak it in, enjoy the experience, and just play the game. Enjoy the game for what it is,” senior middle blocker Haleigh Washington said alums have told her. “This is a part of the Penn State program — getting to play in these big arenas and working hard to play in these arenas. This isn’t something that we’ve been given, but it’s something we’ve worked hard to earn.”
Washington, along with fellow first team All-American Simone Lee and many of the six other seniors have seen what it takes to succeed at this level — having been part of the 2014 Penn State national title-winning team. Their class, which was deemed one of the greatest recruiting classes in women’s volleyball, has been tormented by Nebraska through the years — dropping the last six matches to the Cornhuskers.
Naturally, Penn State’s opponent Thursday will be Nebraska — the four seed that shared the Big Ten title with Penn State after defeating it in straight sets during the rivals’ lone meeting in 2017.
“I don’t know if frustrating’s the right word,” Lee said when asked if the Cornhuskers’ recent edge over the Nittany Lions is getting irritating.
“It’s just something that we’ve got to be more prepared for. As much as we want to win those last matches, like Haleigh’s been saying, like we’ve all been saying. We can’t look to the past. It’s about the game that’s going to happen tomorrow and how we’re preparing for it today and how we’ve been preparing for it the rest of the week.”
Penn State, a senior-laden team with about as much experience on the floor as any team in the country, faces a Nebraska side that was supposed to be in a rebuilding year after losing three key seniors from last season. The Cornhuskers looked like they might struggle in 2017, entering that Big Ten opener with three losses.
Nebraska — which has been to the last three Final Fours and was national champion in 2015 — found its groove this year after sweeping the Nittany Lions, dropping just one match and looking dominant in the process.
So what’s going to be different this time around?
“I think since the first Nebraska match, we’ve clicked with the chemistry kind of thing. So we work well off the pass, off the set, then eventually with the attacking,” Washington said. “It’s also being able to do that well out of system. I think in system, it’s easy for teams to do that. But being able to have that same chemistry when things aren’t going your way, I think that’s something we’ve worked on.”
Penn State will have history on its side, however. Nebraska owns a large series lead in both total matches and NCAA Tournament matches, but the Nittany Lions won the only two Final Four meeting between the programs.
Penn State-Nebraska airs live from Kansas City on ESPN at 7 p.m. Thursday night. Should the Nittany Lions advance, they’ll face either Stanford or Florida on Saturday.