It’s been 360 days since a spike from Megan Hodge ricocheted off the arms of Destinee Hooker for the winning point of Penn State’s third-straight national championship.
In two days, the Penn State women’s volleyball team (30-5) and Texas (27-5) will meet again — this time for a chance to return to the championship game.
Each team had to endure a bumpy road to get back to the Final Four, and the paths each took were in fact similar.
Both squads entered the season having lost experienced setters and outside hitters to graduation. Injuries to key players made the road back to this point even more challenging.
When Texas and Penn State both struggled against Stanford at the Nike Big Four Volleyball Classic, getting to the national semifinals may have seemed somewhat unlikely. The Nittany Lions were swept by Stanford on Sept. 11, and the Cardinal did the same to Texas the next day.
Freshman Deja McClendon said both teams have moved on since the setbacks to Stanford, which she called the lowest point of the season for the Lions.
“We’ve come really far from then,” McClendon said. “We’ve gained composure and learned to fight. We’ve always known how to fight, but we’ve learned to push through the hardest points.”
Senior defensive specialist Cathy Quilico believes both teams have progressed since those September losses.
Heading into Thursday’s match, each squad boasts one of the top offenses in the nation. Penn State is second in the country with a .314 hitting percentage, while the Longhorns are fourth, hitting .311.
Quilico said incorporating younger players into each lineup challenged the teams early in the season, but they’ve since adapted.
“We’ve learned to become a better team, and we’ve learned to play better together,” Quilico said. “I’m assuming Texas has, as well. You get into a groove of things with your team and habits.”
While both teams have underclassmen playing key roles, they’re led by veterans. Of the remaining players in the tournament, Penn State senior Blair Brown is third in kills per game, while Texas senior Juliann Faucette is fourth.
Both teams feature talented middle blockers who are very efficient offensively. Texas’ Rachael Adams is someone Penn State coach Russ Rose referred to as “an elite kid.” Adams leads the nation in hitting percentage, which Penn State senior Arielle Wilson is familiar with. Wilson set the record for hitting percentage in a season last year, and she is fifth this season.
Quilico said the similarities in the offenses could possibly be the product of Texas assistant coach Salima Rockwell, who coached the Lions from 2006-08 as an assistant. Rockwell works mainly with the setters.
Rose believes it is likely Rockwell has had a positive influence on Texas.
“She was a great player and she was a great coach and a person I enjoyed spending a great deal of time with,” Rose said. “We laughed a lot and we had a lot of fun and I’m sure she’s bringing her strengths to the Texas team.”
Quilico said it’s weird playing Texas while Rockwell is on the bench, but the Penn State players enjoy seeing their former coach.
When the Lions meet Rockwell and Texas Thursday in Kansas City, Mo., it will be the first match away from home in the tournament for each team — both having hosted the opening and regional rounds.
McClendon said playing in front of home fans is a huge advantage and believed it helped Texas defeat Purdue in their last match. She expects a level playing field Thursday, with each team playing its first contest on the road.
Though Penn State had a lot of success at Rec Hall, McClendon believes the Lions can win away from home.
“We have an extreme amount of confidence at home,” McClendon said. “Going away will definitely test us, but I am confident that we can play through it.”