By Chuck Curti
Published: Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013, 10:33 p.m.
Katie Slay (16) spikes the ball through Michigan State players during the fifth set of the women’s volleyball game at Rec Hall on Friday, September 27, 2013. The Nittany Lions lost to the Spartans 2-3. (Jessica Paholsky/The Daily Collegian)
In most collegiate settings, rock-star status generally is reserved for the football and basketball teams. But around University Park, the Penn State women's volleyball team has achieved a significant level of celebrity.
A decade of multiple national titles and near-uninterrupted reign atop the Big Ten will do that.
Senior middle blocker Katie Slay was out buying groceries Monday when she was approached by several people who congratulated her on the team's most recent accomplishment.
The Nittany Lions advanced to the Final Four and will face Washington on Thursday night in Seattle. Top-seeded Texas and Wisconsin are the other semifinalists.
Under coach Russ Rose, Penn State has become one of the pre-eminent women's volleyball programs in the country, winning four straight national titles from 2007-2010. It's a legacy the current players want to extend.
“All the alumni who have come before us have worked so hard to put us in this position,” said Slay, a freshman on the 2010 national title team, “so I think it's important that we embrace that reputation and really try to even better it and leave the program better than when we came in.”
Slay and the other holdovers from 2010 learned quickly how tough the road to a title can be. In 2011, the Nittany Lions saw their run of eight straight Big Ten championships stopped and were ousted in the Sweet 16.
“I didn't understand how much work goes into even getting to the Final Four, getting to the tournament, even winning the Big Ten,” said senior Deja McClendon, who as a freshman, was named most outstanding player in the Final Four. “So the next year when we didn't win the Big Ten and we lost in the Sweet 16, I was like, wow. Because the girls before us at Penn State made it look so easy.”
This year's group has made things look relatively easy in going 32-2. But it took a loss to start the Nittany Lions on the way to winning.
The watershed moment came Sept. 27 when Penn State fell 3-2 to Michigan State. Slay said the loss showed the team that it needed to close out matches when given the opportunity.
Since then, Penn State has won 23 straight, including a 3-1 victory at what Slay called “an intimidating facility” in Lincoln, Neb., where the Cornhuskers were backed by 9,000 red-clad fans. They also survived a five-set thriller with Stanford in the regional final.
Those are the experiences the Nittany Lions will lean on in Seattle.
“It's important to trust the body of work that you've built and know that you still have to compete hard,” said Slay. “Washington is a really good team … but we don't have to reinvent the light bulb. We just have to play our game and take care of our side of the court like we have all season.”
For seniors like Slay and McClendon, bookending their Penn State careers with national titles would be the ultimate achievement. But they also recognize that their duty extends beyond the present. They must ensure that the program's lofty standard — and lofty profile around University Park — is perpetuated.
“The biggest thing I learned from the girls who were seniors when I was a freshman is you create the culture of your team,” said McClendon. “We decide how hard we're going to work. And we ultimately decide how far we go.
“I think the seniors (in 2010) were trying to teach that to me … and they did a wonderful job of creating a culture that isn't satisfied. And I think that's what success is. Never being satisfied.”
Chuck Curti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com.
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