Sunday, December 16, 2007


Sunday, Dec. 16, 2007

Gordon Brunskill
Centre Daily Times

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
Penn State's Megan Hodge found the holes in Stanford's defense.

As Megan Hodge cocked back her powerful right arm, you knew it was time to begin the celebration.

Taking a perfect set along the net from Alisha Glass, Hodge unleashed that arm and ripped the ball past the Stanford blockers, off the fingertips of a diving Alix Klineman and onto the floor of ARCO Arena in Sacramento, Calif.

It was the last of 26 kills for the Penn State sophomore and it was the most important one.

It gave the Nittany Lion women's volleyball team the national championship as they finally put away a resilient Stanford Saturday night in Sacramento, Calif.

The Nittany Lions (34-2) picked up their second title to go with the one earned in 1999 with a 30-25, 30-26, 23-30, 19-30, 15-8 victory.

"It hasn't really sunk in yet that we won," said Hodge, who was voted the tournament's Most Outstanding Player after the match. "It's surreal. I'm on a high."

Nicole Fawcett added 19 kills and the team's only two aces, Christa Harmotto had 13 kills while hitting .435 and freshman Arielle Wilson had 12 kills and hit .500 with five blocks. Alisha Glass posted 65 assists and 11 digs.

Roberta Holehouse led the team with 17 digs and five Nittany Lions finished in double figures in digs as the team finished with a season-high 76.

Stanford won the blocking battle 11 to 8.5 but Penn State hit .318 to the Cardinal's .293. Another solid hitting night let the Nittany Lions finish the six-match tournament hitting .424 to obliterate the NCAA record. The old mark of .369 was set by Long Beach State in 1995.

"It's so unbelievable," Fawcett said. "I feel numb."

The hard part for the Nittany Lions was getting themselves ready for the decisive fifth game after seeing a 2-0 lead disappear.

Sacramento Bee Staff Photo
Stanford Cardinals Alix Klineman, #10, serves the ball against the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Stanford then opened with a 4-3 advantage, but the Nittany Lions took off on a 7-0 run. After Hodge tied it with a big swing, Harmotto put Penn State in the lead for good by blasting a kill off a blocker running a slide to the outside.

Fawcett then lasered the ball cross-court, Harmotto buried another ball into the floor off an overpass, and after a Stanford hitting error, Glass burned the Cardinal on consecutive points by dumping the ball over the net on the second touch. The win was in sight at 10-4.

"It was huge because of how short the game is," Harmotto said. "To be up in that game and to have such a big lead was huge for our confidence. They scored again, but then we got the ball right back."

From there the team just had to be patient and not let Stanford take back the momentum -- the Cardinal managed just one kill in the entire game.

Fawcett knew the pressure was on when she stepped in for what turned out to be the match's final serve.

"The biggest thing was for me to go back and making sure I got my serve in," Fawcett said. "I missed game point in the third game and that was not going to happen again."

The key to that final frame was forgetting what had just slipped away in the third and fourth games.

"Yeah, they had the momentum because they won the fourth game," Harmotto said. "I just turned to my teammates and said, 'Look guys, this is all out. Everybody gives everything. It doesn't matter if you¹re tired -- nothing. This is for the national championship.' We just did a great job of coming out and jumping on them."

Penn State's Blair Brown, right, spikes the ball against Stanford's Foluke Akinradewo during the finals of the Women's Division I NCAA volleyball Championships in Sacramento, Calif., Saturday, Dec. 15, 2007. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Stanford got back into the match by switching around its rotation and having All-American setter Bryn Kehoe go on a big serving roll. She finished with five aces and four came in the third game, including three in a row as part of a 6-0 run.

It helped contribute to some Penn State passing problems, which were an off-and-on problem for the team all season.

"It was a miscommunication problem, that was the biggest thing," Fawcett said of the first game the team had lost in the entire tournament. "We struggled with that all year and it came to be a factor there but we rebounded from that and pulled out of it."

With the Cardinal now feeling confident, they began to take some huge swings, hitting .535 as a team without a single error in the fourth game.

The offense was keyed by American Volleyball Coaches Association Player of the Year Foluke Akinradewo and fellow All-American Cynthia Barboza.

"On a good pass we needed to commit on her," Harmotto said of trying to stop Akinradewo. "She's going to get her kills. She can hit over people, she hits a fast ball, but I thought we did a pretty good job of slowing her down in that fifth game. After four games you kind of know what they're going to run."

Akinradewo finished with 18 kills and hit .425 along with six blocks. Klineman, a freshman, also had 18 kills and 15 digs, Barboza had 16 kills and 12 digs, Kehoe gave out 62 assists to go with seven blocks and Franci Girard contributed 10 kills.

The match was a virtual all-star game. Each team featured four All-Americans, including three first-teamers apiece. Stanford had Akinradewo, Kehoe, Barboza and second-teamer Klineman while the Nittany Lions had Hodge, Fawcett, Harmotto and Glass on the second team.

Penn State Nittany Lions Arielle Wilson, #7, goes for a kill against the Stanford Cardinals Cynthia Barboza, #1.

The Cardinal, which has won an NCAA-best six championships, also lost to Nebraska in last year's title match.

"This is why we take the court every day and work hard in practice, so we can win a national championship," Akinradewo said. "It's worth taking the risk."

Penn State shook off the jitters of the opening few points and took control of the first game with a short 4-1 run to go up 26-23, topped by a Fawcett kill off a blocker. Fawcett then finished off the game with another crosscourt kill.

The Nittany Lions kept up the offensive pressure in the second game, hitting .525 with huge kills from all along the net. The team also got some big blocking, finished off by a triple block from Fawcett, Glass and Harmotto on Klineman to finish the set.

Especially in those first two games, Penn State had probably its best defensive showing of the year keeping balls alive and covering the court behind its blockers.

"They had some rallies we thought were over," Stanford coach John Dunning said. "People were celebrating in the stands but they were still going on."

Sacramento Bee Staff Photo
Nicole Fawcett, #1, of the Penn State Nittany Lions raises the championship trophy after her team's 3-2 vitory over the Stanford Cardinals during the 2007 NCAA Division I women's volleyball championship game Saturday, Dec. 15, 2007, at Arco Arena in Sacramento, Calif.

Penn State finished the season winning its last 26 matches, dating back exactly three months when Stanford beat the Nittany Lions in five games at a tournament at Yale. This was the third meeting between the schools in the national final, with Penn State winning its title in 1999 and Stanford taking the crown in 1997.

"It's crazy, it's like you're not there," Glass said of the feeling of being a national champion. "You look back and it and, what can be better than that? What can be better than jumping and having your whole team on the floor and thinking all the same thing and sharing in the excitement.

"It's something that you play for. It's your goal to win a national championship."

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