Russ Rose grinds out volleyball titles

Penn State's Micha Hancock comments on her team's victory in the 2013 women's NCAA volleyball championship.

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SEATTLE -- It might be the last thing you'd expect to hear from the coach of a program that has won five of the past seven NCAA titles in its sport.

"I'm not trying to set the bar high," Penn State's Russ Rose said after his Nittany Lions won the women's volleyball championship Saturday. "We're just trying to compete. We want to grind. This is what we do."

Hold on. Penn State now has six national championships, tied with Stanford for most in Division I. The Nittany Lions have made it to at least the national semifinals 11 times, including in six of the past seven years.

That's not trying to set the bar high?

Of course it is. But Rose, who took over the program in 1979, focuses on the process and what needs to happen each day. He'll let others delve into the history of what he's already done.

"I'm just saying they're for the kids," Rose said of Penn State's championships. "They'll have the rest of their lives to look back on the journey that existed and the hard parts that existed with it. I don't want it to be easy."

It isn't, even when Penn State makes it look as if it is. There are plenty of eager, hungry challengers to what the Nittany Lions have. All you had to do was look at how crushed Wisconsin was after its 3-1 loss Saturday at KeyArena to know how badly the Badgers wanted this.

But Penn State prevailed because of the high bar that's been established, whether Rose wants to call it that or not.

"I think it's because he strives for perfection," senior Deja McClendon said of why Penn State has been so successful. "That's impossible to actually achieve, but he wants us to try. He still comes into practice every day and is never satisfied; you don't see him relaxing. I think it's that mentality that he instills in us."

Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield is in the same conference as Rose, of course, and so their schools' rivalry is revisited every season during Big Ten play. Yet Sheffield doesn't shy away from praising what Rose has done.

"I appreciate excellence, because that's something I aspire to have," said Sheffield, who had an excellent first season with the Badgers. "Year in, year out [Penn State] has been the program that's consistently either at the top or right there. That's what we're trying to build."

But how did Penn State do this as an Eastern school in a sport that for so many years leaned hard to the West? In the first 26 seasons of the NCAA tournament, 21 champions were from either the Pacific time zone or Hawaii.

And it wasn't until Rose's 15th season -- 1993 -- that the Nittany Lions made their first appearance in the NCAA semifinals. Then they topped that with four more such appearances in the next six years, culminating with Penn State's first title, in 1999. The Nittany Lions were firmly establishing themselves as perennial contenders for the national championship.

The program did hit a bit of a lull after the college game changed to rally scoring for the 2001 season. With no more siding out needed to score points, the dynamics of the sport and the athletes playing it changed some. Rose acknowledges he didn't alter his recruiting philosophy as quickly as he needed to in order to adjust to the changes.

"When we went to rally scoring, I was a little late to the party on being stubborn about it," Rose said, explaining he kept preferring the smaller, more versatile players instead of the bigger kids who might not have all-around skills, but did have the size and strength to rack up points.

He had to find the happy medium of bringing in various types of players who could complement each other. By 2007, the Nittany Lions had achieved that in a big way. From 2007 to 2010, they won four straight national titles and had a record of 142-7.

The past three seasons, Penn State lost in the regional semifinals, lost in the national semifinals, then won it all again.

Penn State loses starters such as seniors McClendon, Katie Slay and Ariele Scott, each of whom was on the all-tournament team. But standouts like junior Micha Hancock -- the 2013 championship's most outstanding player -- return. And a very strong recruiting class is coming in.

Rose might not ever talk about wanting to win more titles than any other Division I women's volleyball coach, but he's definitely headed down that path.

A dynasty in Division II

And speaking of piling up championships, look at coach Brady Starkey. His Concordia-St. Paul program has won seven Division II volleyball titles in a row.

For the most recent championship, the Minnesota school beat BYU-Hawaii in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the weekend before the D-I event.

Concordia-St. Paul now has the NCAA record for most consecutive women's volleyball titles. The Golden Bears previously were tied with D-III Washington University at six.

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