In advance of Stanford women’s volleyball’s upcoming matchup against Penn State in the NCAA tournament’s national semifinal, The Daily’s Jordan Wallach chatted with Patrick Kowalski, the women’s volleyball beat writer for The Daily Collegian (Penn State’s student newspaper), to gain perspective on the No. 5 seeded Nittany Lions.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): After a few tough losses earlier in the season, including the five-setter to Stanford at Maples Pavilion back in September, Penn State seemed to kick into another gear down the stretch. Down the stretch, as they won 16 consecutive matches without conceding a set before the four-setter in the regional final, what changed in the Nittany Lions’ dynamic?
Patrick Kowalski (PK): The Nittany Lions were a good team early in the year. However, the introduction of a healthy Haleigh Washington has made a world of difference for the team in terms of production and energy level. In early October, Penn State beat Northwestern handily, but head coach Russ Rose was not pleased with the team’s intensity. The Lions dropped the next match against Illinois in probably their poorest effort on the year.
Washington, a freshman, entered the starting lineup in the next match against Purdue and she elevated Penn State’s play in so many facets: as an additional attacking option, an improving blocker and most importantly, a passionate freshman. She is perhaps the most upbeat, positive person that I’ve ever met. Her attitude is contagious and her energy lifts the Lions to another level. Had she been healthy the entire season, she would have been in contention for All-American honors. She led the Big Ten with a .487 hitting percentage this year.
TSD: How has this year’s squad dealt with the departures of Ariel Scott, Katie Slay and Deja McClendon, who made up such a huge part of Penn State’s offense for so many championship seasons?
— NCAA Volleyball (@NCAAVolleyball) December 13, 2014
PK: Losing three All-Americans puts a dent in anyone’s lineup. Toward the beginning of the season, Rose was experimenting with a variety of personnel and nothing really came together quite the way he would have liked. Seniors Micha Hancock and Nia Grant were locks in the starting five. Grant played well throughout the season and was in the top-five for hitting percentage nationally for the majority of the year. Junior Megan Courtney saw a lot of time early in her career and earned a spot in the lineup pretty quickly. However, the emergence of redshirt junior Aiyana Whitney was huge. She’s not a flashy player, but she’s consistent and she’s smart. She has the led the team in kills on many occasions this season, most recently against Wisconsin and UCLA.
Along with Whitney, freshmen Ali Frantti, Simone Lee and Washington have each played in an important role in the offense. Frantti started the season on a tear and played some of her best matches against top competition. If Washington wasn’t in the equation, Frantti could have easily taken home Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Lee has been a timely contributor, particularly when Washington was hurt at the beginning of the season. She didn’t see much time in conference play, but her performance in set two against Wisconsin in the regional final helped breathe new life into Penn State. These girls don’t possess the same talent as the departed players, but together, they provide Penn State with just enough balance to keep the opposition on its toes.
TSD: The Stanford-Penn State rivalry has only intensified over the last few seasons, as the Nittany Lions have won six of the last seven national titles to even up the all-time record with the Cardinal. Many people think that this match would be better suited as the national championship, with these teams having produced such classics over the years. How do these teams complement each other so well?
PK: Penn State and Stanford are two programs that embody excellence in women’s volleyball. What’s great about these two teams is that they always bring the best out of one another. Thursday’s match will certainly be of national championship caliber, but you could say the same on the other side of the bracket with Texas and BYU. Both of those schools are playing at an elite level and deserve to be among the final four teams.
Penn State and Stanford complement each other so well because in demanding the highest level of play, they force each other to adapt. The Penn State team is much different than it was in September, and the same goes for Stanford. Penn State knocking out Stanford in the tournament last year and the Cardinal’s victory over the Lions and overall play this season makes for one interesting storyline among many in this top-caliber matchup.
TSD: What does Penn State need to do to beat the Cardinal on Thursday night, and the other way around? Who do you think will clinch a spot in Saturday’s national championship when all is said and done?
PK: Penn State needs to come out fast; the first set against Wisconsin a really underwhelming start to the regional final. The Lions have passed well throughout the season — it’s perhaps their biggest strength. Hancock has been able to find the hot hand throughout the season and if she finds a hole in the defense, she’ll find the right attacker to exploit it, whether its Washington, Frantti, Whitney or Courtney. And don’t forget about Hancock’s serve: she’s the best in the nation for a reason. If she keeps the ball in play, it makes the game a lot easier for Penn State.
That being said, Stanford’s play in its regional final was phenomenal. Hitting .410 against a very strong Florida team is nothing to scoff at. If the Cardinal to continue to hit like that through Boukather, Burgess, Lutz and Ajanaku, it’ll be a matter of trying to slow them down for the Lions rather than stopping them. This match seems destined to go to five sets, and the winner will be the team that makes the fewest errors down the stretch.
Contact Jordan Wallach at jwallach ‘at’ stanford.edu.