Penn State looking for another title
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Three of the teams in the final four of women's volleyball -- Penn State, Texas and Michigan -- scheduled matches at the site of the final four this season. It gave them a chance to acclimate themselves to the city and the KFC Yum! Center, which, with its large size, is different than the average volleyball venue.
But no player knows Louisville better than Penn State junior Deja McClendon, who went to Dupont Manual High School here. Her younger sister, Maya, plays there now and will be competing here Friday in the Under Armour All-America match that features the top prep seniors. (Maya will play for Louisville next season.)
Naturally, a lot of the questions when Penn State met with the media on Wednesday were directed to Deja, the hometown girl.
"I'm excited to be back home," McClendon said. "I have such a great support system here, and I think that will really help our team."
Not that the top-seeded Nittany Lions need much help. They are seeking the program's sixth NCAA title, which would be the second for McClendon. She was named most outstanding player when Penn State won the NCAA championship in 2010, her freshman year. McClendon was a second-team All-American in that season and made the first team last year.
Two Nittany Lions -- setter Micha Hancock and right-side hitter Ariel Scott -- were named to the AVCA All-America first team this season, which was released Wednesday. Meanwhile, McClendon is on the third team, but not because her play has diminished.
To the contrary, McClendon has become a more well-rounded player for Penn State and isn't subbed out when she rotates to the back row. Her kill numbers are down (389 this year to 432 last year), but her dig numbers are up (330 to 245).
"I told her that her value to the team was far greater this year than it was last year," Penn State coach Russ Rose said. "Because her game has evolved in a totally different way.
"When she was a freshman, she had a smaller responsibility. She didn't have a defensive presence. The development of her game is what I am proudest of, other than the fact that she is just a fabulous kid."
At that compliment, McClendon smiled broadly -- one of her trademarks. It's a counterbalance to what you might call Rose's mirthful grumpiness.
"That is really who she is," Rose said of McClendon's perpetual sunshine. "As much as I might get mad and want to say something to her, then she will look at me and smile. Then I will be like, 'Oh, well, I guess I will have to yell at Micha instead.'"
Another try for Texas
Like Penn State, Texas has been a frequent visitor in recent seasons to the final four. The Longhorns are making their fourth appearance in the past five years. In 2010, they were among Penn State's conquests, losing a national semifinal match that seemed like it was over a few minutes after it started.
Penn State blitzed Texas 25-13, 25-13, 25-22 in that one. Bailey Webster, who along with teammate Haley Eckerman was named a first-team All-American on Wednesday, didn't play that season because of a knee injury that forced her to redshirt. Setter Hannah Allison dealt with a recurring ankle injury that season that kept her from being her best. Webster and Allison, both juniors, are eager to have another shot at the final four while fully healthy.
"I think we remember that like it was yesterday, even with how little we got to play," Allison said in regard to the brevity of their 2010 national semifinal. "We remember the emotions that went along with it. We were disappointed with our performance in that match and can take a lot of those lessons we learned and apply them."
Wolverines keeping their cool
After Texas won its regional final match last Saturday in Austin, Texas, Longhorns coach Jerritt Elliott went back to his house to watch the Michigan-Stanford final with his assistants.
"The thing that all of us noticed is how relaxed and how much fun Michigan is having," Elliott said of his team's opponent here in the semifinals. "They got into a really good rhythm against Stanford."
The Wolverines -- rather than getting tight as the NCAA tournament has progressed -- have loosened up. Not in their play, but in their emotions. Michigan, the only unseeded team to advance to the elite eight, has been playing like a team confident it can win.
"All season, we've been working on our mental game and making connections with each other," Michigan senior Claire McElheny said.
"When there's a lot of pressure on us, or things aren't going well, it's easy to internalize things. But I feel like after a whole season of working on that, our mental side of our game and the connections we have been making are really peaking right now."
'Ancient' history for Ducks
Oregon defeated Penn State in August 2011 to open that season. That victory ended the Nittany Lions' 94-match home winning streak. What impact does that have on the teams' national semifinal match here?
None, says Ducks coach Jim Moore. Even though most of the players on both teams were also playing then, it was the equivalent of two seasons ago.
However, the victory did matter to Oregon's program, which is now making its first appearance in the final four.
"It let us know that we were good and it put us on the map," Moore said. "But it really has no bearing on the match [Thursday] night."