This year’s Penn State Women’s Volleyball senior class ended their 2014 freshman season with an NCAA Championship in Oklahoma City. After defeating a very, very good Michigan State Spartans team on Saturday night 3-0 (25-23, 25-17, 28-26), could they be ready for a bookend title in Kansas City? Not the right question for this team — first things first. Penn State will face Nebraska in a National Semifinal match at 7 p.m. ET on Thursday, Dec. 14 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. The match will be televised on ESPN.
To get there, the 33-1 Nittany Lions had to take down Howard and Pitt in Rounds 1 and 2, respectively, then Missouri in the Regional Semifinal, and finally the Spartans. How tough was Michigan State? For starters, they managed to hold 6-3 Sr. MB Haleigh Washington to 5 kills and what we are pretty sure is a career low hitting % of .176. Head Coach Russ Rose focused on the resilience Washington showed in the face of a Michigan State game plan designed to shut her down:
They have played her a number of times and she has had great success against them. Tonight they committed two people on her quite a bit and it opened up a lot of opportunities. Heidi [Thelen] had a lot of opportunities to attack because they were so keyed up on Haleigh, but there is a lot of coaching going on on both sides. It’s not just the home team that is working hard. They had a great game plan and the best thing about Haleigh is she didn’t care that she didn’t have kills because she was blocking well [10 total blocks in the match — one short of her career record, set against St. Johns in a Saturday morning match in 2015] and the team was winning. So when she had her first kill and everyone was laughing and making fun of her, she was right in the middle of laughing about it. She wasn’t caught up in who she is supposed to be. It was a tougher match for her offensively but she is a very bright young person. A lot of people would have been distracted by their hitting and it would of impacted other parts of their game but that wasn’t the case [with Washington].
It wasn’t just last night that was a slugfest between the two teams. In the three matches between the Nittany Lions and the Spartans (regular season in Rec Hall; regular season in East Lansing, and last night’s NCAA Tournament match), there were four deuce sets. Although Penn State won three of those, if one or two had gone the other way, Michigan State might have won at least one of the three matches — maybe last night’s.
But they didn’t. 6-0 RS Sr. setter Bryanna Weiskircher and 6-0 Sr. RS/setter Abby Detering guided Penn State to a .276 hitting percentage for the match. The defense (led by Washington and 5-5 So. libero Kendall White, who registered a match-high 18 digs) out blocked the Spartans 14.0 to 8.0 and held them to .149 hitting. 6-1 Sr. OH Simone Lee (who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the University Park Regional), totaled a team-high 12 kills, with 10 digs, and three blocks. 6-2 Sr. RS/Opp Heidi Thelen put down 9 kills (.643 hitting %), 4 blocks and 2 digs. 6-1 Sr. OH Ali Frantti (who was named to the University Park Regional All-Tournament Team), totaled 8 kills and 10 digs, with 1 block. 6-2 RS So. MB Tori Gorrell registered 4 kills (.571 hitting %) with 3 blocks.
Coach Rose noted that the bench made significant contributions too:
I thought Lainy [Pierce — 1 service ace; played in 3 games] came in and served well. Nia [Reed — 3 kills on 6 swings, no errors, all in the 3rd game] brings great energy when she comes in. She is a really offensive-minded player but the energy is good and everybody likes her because she is a good kid. I think that was nice.
Courtesy of GoPSUsports.com
Post-Match Press Conference
Penn State Head Coach Russ Rose: Opening Statement
First I would like to congratulate Michigan State on their season and on the great career of their seniors. We had three great matches with them this year. We have great respect for Michigan State and we are excited about the results of the match tonight. I don’t think it was our best match but having coached for a long time I would say that sometimes these matches are really tough to play and all the teams that get this far play really hard. You know I thought Simone [Lee] hit really well. It was great to bring Nia [Reed] in the end and do well. Bryanna [Weiskircher] is a really KG player and I thought she did a really nice job setting. She stays calm in tough situations which is a great trait.
Q. Coach, you guys were down 18-16 in the opening set. How big was that dig from Kendall [White] to give Simone [Lee] that kill which gave you guys some momentum?
RR: They are always big. It was a hard hit ball and that’s a great attacker on the other side. She led the match in kills. It is not a surprise to us that she is going to be getting the ball and I thought she took a great swing. We did a number of things in the scouting report that we thought were going to be necessary for us to have success and trying to dig Bailey [Autumn] inside the block was one of them.
Heidi Thelen | #19 | Senior RS/Opp
Q. How key was the blocking effort tonight with you, Tori [Gorrell], and Haleigh [Washington]? You guys had 14 on the team.
HT: Haleigh [Washington] had ten of those so Haleigh blocked really well tonight. I think we work a lot and all three of us had played the middle position before and they are obviously middles. I think we did a good job keying in and working with Dennis on what we were actually taking and doing that, sticking to the game plan, listening to our coaches, and feeding the ball to Kendall [White].
Q: Haleigh had five kills tonight. Was there anything that Michigan State was doing that led to that?
RR: They have played her a number of times and she has had great success against them. Tonight they committed two people on her quite a bit and it opened up a lot of opportunities. Heidi [Thelen] had a lot of opportunities to attack because they were so keyed up on Haleigh, but there is a lot of coaching going on on both sides. It’s not just the home team that is working hard. They had a great game plan and the best thing about Haleigh is she didn’t care that she didn’t have kills because she was blocking well and the team was winning. So when she had her first kill and everyone was laughing and making fun of her, she was right in the middle of laughing about it. She wasn’t caught up in who she is supposed to be. It was tougher match for her offensively but she is a very bright young person. A lot of people would have been distracted by their hitting and it would of impacted other parts of their game but that wasn’t the case.
Q: How key do you think the contributions were off the bench tonight especially late?
RR: I thought Lainy [Pierce] came in and served well. Nia [Reed] brings great energy when she comes in. She is a really offensive-minded player but the energy is good and everybody likes her because she is a good kid. I think that was nice, what do you think Nia?
Nia Reed | #6 | RS Junior
NR: I was excited to go in and be a part of my first Elite Eight. I’m happy that I have an enough confidence and my team has enough confidence in me to go out and make the play and they are not worried about setting me because they have trust.
Q: Coach how have you seen this team grow in the past year? You lost similar matches last year where you were up 2-0 the first two sets then kind of lost the momentum towards the end. How big is that you overcame that this year and were able to get the win.
RR: Last year we didn’t have a good record in five game matches, but we had a swing to go to the Elite Eight and the intent of that team was to do more than they did. I think the players worked it out amongst themselves to better in some areas and part of maturity is how you handle all the experiences. I tell people all the time not all experiences are good, but they are all valuable. When Simone [Lee] got blocked at the end of the game for a match point, I thought that I had seen that before. The difference is that this time we were able to rally and come back and win the game and essentially win the match.
Q: Do you think the home crowd had a big impact in that third set?
RR: The home crowd has great impact all the time. We are very appreciative of both the crowd, the band, and the booster club buying so many tickets for the students and for the university to put in a bid to host an event. It’s not a given across the country that schools do that, so we are aware of that and are thankful for that. The crowd always makes a difference.
Q: Heidi, how excited are you to be playing in the Final Four this year?
HT: I am very excited. We went my freshman year but I wasn’t seeing the court so it was just an awesome experience. It’s different from being a freshman and being like ‘Wow this is so cool,’ and now actually being a part of it and on the court is something different but really exciting. It’s my last season so I’m happy to spend these last moments with my teammates and we want to win so we are going to work hard.
Q: Does it feel good to go out on top in your last game at home?
HT: Yeah of course. We always want to win in Rec and we always want to win in general. Winning our last game here, and my last game ever in this is gym, was just something truly amazing. Of course I’m going to miss it. I’m going to miss the fans, the boosters, the wRECkin’ crew, and just everybody. It’s just awesome.
Bryanna Weiskircher | #21 | RS Junior
Q. Bryanna, any thoughts on a rematch with Nebraska this week?
BW: I think it will be interesting trying to talk up the game. We’re going to worry about us and really that is what it comes down too. We are going to play our game and do what we can do. Expose our own strengths and go out and play hard like we do every day. Doesn’t matter who is on the other side of the net.
- Confetti in Rec Hall, 12-9-17, by Steve Manuel. Copyright 2017 Steve Manuel. Published by permission. All rights reserved.
- Team celebrates after Michigan State match. Copyright 2017 Steve Manuel. Published by permission. All rights reserved.
- All other photos, courtesy of GoPSUsports.com.