By Associated Press
Friday, August 26, 2011
UNIVERSITY PARK — Setter Kristin Carpenter slowly walked out of the locker room, her voice hoarse after doing a lot of yelling at Penn State practice.
Keeping a women's volleyball dynasty going is a tiring job.
That's four straight national titles now for the Nittany Lions, the measuring-stick program for the sport following the unprecedented run of success. Coach Russ Rose's club starts the 2011 season this weekend where the 2010 campaign ended — as the No. 1 team in the country, though a roster overhaul could make the drive for five straight crowns a tough task.
Is this the year the talent gap finally closes between Penn State and everybody else?
"I think everybody focuses on you when you're winning like this, so it will definitely close," Southern California coach Mick Haley said in a phone interview. The Trojans, ranked second in the American College Volleyball Association coaches poll, can make an early statement Saturday when they play Penn State in Happy Valley in a marquee, opening-weekend tournament.
Haley likened Penn State's dominating run to UCLA's seven straight national titles in men's basketball (1966-1973) under iconic coach John Wooden.
"But no one likes it when someone wins it all the time," Haley joked, "except for Yankees fans."
When last seen on the court, the Nittany Lions were jumping for joy after a three-set sweep of California at the NCAA finals in Kansas City. Several key players from that team have turned in their blue-and-white uniforms, most notably the player of the year, Blair Brown.
Also gone is middle hitter Arielle Wilson, who formed an imposing one-two punch on the front line with Brown. The toughest losses to overcome might be libero Alyssa D'Errico and defensive specialist Cathy Quilico, who provided veteran leadership on the back row.
The roster is a lot younger, including five freshman and two redshirt freshman. No wonder Carpenter's voice was so hoarse from barking out direction.
"With so many (younger players) on the roster," the junior said, "it's expected. We're young. We still have an opportunity to be successful. We have to be smart and eliminate those rookie mistakes, which trust me, I know all too well from last year."
Not that Penn State is bereft of talent — not even close.
The energetic Carpenter returns, along with Deja McClendon, Katie Slay and Ariel Scott, three front-line players who will be expected to step up after making sizable contributions as freshmen last year. The two seniors, outside hitter Katie Kabbes and defensive specialist Megan Shifflet, may need to emerge after three seasons as reserves.
Rose, who tells it like it is, doesn't quite understand how his team could be picked the preseason favorite.
"We won the last four national championships. I'm aware of that," Rose said. "It's unbelievable. Nobody's ever done that before. Does that mean that this group is the No. 1 group in the country? It doesn't make sense to think that's how it works."
Haley said he puts "zero stock" in preseason polls himself. Though he does have an idea why Penn State is No. 1.
"Russ knows why he's No. 1," Haley said. "He's No. 1 because everybody wants to beat him."
The Nittany Lions learned a lesson last year after a 109-match win streak ended in September in a loss to Stanford. It was the second-longest streak in Division I team sports, behind only the 137 straight match wins by Miami men's tennis from 1957-1964.
Four more losses followed in the Big Ten. There were doubts about the Nittany Lions in December when the NCAA tournament began, but they spiked their way to the top, again.
"They've figured out how to be great in December. They had two back-to-back, really strong recruiting classes," Nebraska coach John Cook said. "Russ is a great coach. They have tradition in that program.
"I don't think the gap is that far. I mean, they lost at Indiana, they lost at Illinois and they lost at Minnesota. ... It's not like they're just dominating and going undefeated. But they have had remarkable runs in the NCAA tournament."
And those runs are part of the reason why a sport rooted on the sand beaches of southern California has developed a following far away from the West Coast, from Nebraska to Penn State, and Texas to Florida. Penn State's roster includes players from North Carolina, Indiana and Oklahoma.
"Whatever it is, we're hot, and we've been hot for some time. That leads right into the collegiate game," Haley said. "Right now there are 40 teams that one way or another can get to the final four."
Once again, though, Penn State is the preseason favorite.