Penn State vs. Hawai’i: Room with Some Views

Tampa, FL

DigNittany: It’s the day before the much anticipated 2009 NCAA Women’s Volleyball National Semi-Final match between the #1 ranked Penn State Nittany Lions and the #3 ranked Hawai’i Rainbow Wahine.

Given that this is a site for volleyball fans, we asked two fans (in a burst of inspiration, we decided to call them Hawai’iFan and PennStateFan) to give us their thoughts about the match and how it may play out. They were kind enough to indulge us.

We’ll follow-up later today with answers from a “neutral” observer (that’s their story, and they’re sticking to it). So here goes — love, peace and volleyball!

DigNittany: How long have you two followed your respective teams, and do you regularly attend or watch their matches?

Hawai’iFan: I started following Wahine Volleyball 1n 1987 (the year Hawai’i won its third NCAA Championship.) I’ve been a season ticket holder since 1992 and regularly attend Wahine home matches.

PennStateFan: I’ve followed Penn State Women’s volleyball for about six years. I attend every match that I can, and if I can’t, I try to catch it on television or online. I’m a big fan of collegiate volleyball.

DigNittany: Penn State comes in with a huge reputation — #1 ranking, undefeated in 100 consecutive matches, #1 in the NCAA in hitting percentage and blocking, four returning AVCA All-Americans (Megan Hodge and Alisha Glass – First Team, Blair Brown and Arielle Wilson, Second Team), on and on.

But Hawai’i has some pretty good statistics of its own: they have a terrific 32-2 record, with solid wins over UCLA, Stanford, St. Louis, Illinois and Michigan, and the only two losses coming early in the season against Texas and, on September 6th, to Cal.

They haven’t lost since. Amber Kaufman is ranked #4 in the NCAA in hitting percentage, with Kanani Danielson and Brittany Hewitt not far behind (Hewitt’s also among the leaders in blocks), and Aneli Cubi-Otineru and Amber Kaufman both have killer serves (ranked 11th and 53rd nationally, respectively).

So, everyone is really psyched for the match. What do each of you think is the single biggest key for your team to win on Thursday night?

Hawai’iFan: It’s tough to narrow it down to one key. Obviously the Wahine serve and pass game has to be on, and Hawai’i has to limit its mistakes. You just can’t afford to give a team like Penn State free points, especially on serve. I also think it’s important for the Wahine defenders to cover the Wahine hitters. Outside of that the Wahine need to do what they have been doing all season long, believe in themselves and play smart volleyball.

PennStateFan: Penn State just needs to play to their potential. We’ve seen it several times this season, but when they bring their ‘A’ game and play like champions, they’re unstoppable. These athletes have the talent and the experience to do something extraordinary this weekend.

DigNittany: Illinois Head Coach Kevin Hambly called Hawai’i “a great team, very athletic” and said Illinois knew that if the Illini couldn’t stop Hawai’i from running its offense fast, Illinois would be in trouble. Michigan’s Head Coach Mark Rosen said Hawai’i served and passed as well as anyone Michigan faced all year, and that the Wahine had Michigan on their heels all night.

Obviously, Hawai’i excels in the serve-pass aspect of the game. Do you see anything in Penn State that might pose problems for the Wahine? And, on the flip side, do you see any weaknesses in Penn State that might help make Hawai’i even more effective in serve – pass?

Hawai’iFan: Well, Penn State is big across the net, perhaps the biggest team that Hawai’i has faced all year. If Hawai’i does not pass well and the only option is high and outside, I can see that being a problem for Hawai’i.

It’s hard to find a weakness on this Nittany Lion team. However, this is the best Wahine serving team in recent memory so I believe that Hawai’i can create some problems for Penn State at the service line by taking away some of Glass’ options — namely Wilson.

PennStateFan: Hawai’i hasn’t seen a blocking team like Penn State yet. They played Texas early in the season, and they’re a good blocking team, but Penn State is a GREAT blocking team. The Wahine had a lot of trouble avoiding the Michigan block and Michigan was the weakest blocking Big Ten team this season. Penn State’s most powerful weapon, arguably, is their right-side block. It’s going to pose a huge problem for the Wahine.

Conversely, I don’t really see any weaknesses in Penn State that the Wahine can exploit. All Penn State’s weaknesses are mental – staying sharp, occasionally becoming complacent, not playing at the “Penn State” level of efficiency, etc. Hawai’i has been really good at serving and passing this season, but I think Penn State has been equally good, if not better at serving and passing. You can’t pass poorly and hit over .400 as a team for the majority of the season.

DigNittany: Which Penn State player do you think poses the biggest challenge for Hawai’i?

Hawai’iFan: Glass, Hodge, and Wilson are tough challenges for the Wahine. However, as good as Glass and Wilson are I believe that Penn State will go only as far as Hodge takes them, so I’d say Hodge. Her ability to put the ball down regardless of where she is set makes her very dangerous.

PennStateFan: I don’t think one specific player poses a bigger challenge than the others – it’s a combination of great players performing as one team that will be the challenge for Hawai’i. Yes, I’m sure that Megan Hodge will get her 15-20 kills and Alisha Glass will set an intricate, complex offense, but individually, none of that matters if the team isn’t playing as one unit. Penn State as a whole will be Hawaii’s challenge.

DigNittany: Which Hawai’i player do you think poses the biggest challenge for Penn State?

Hawai’iFan: Well, Amber Kaufman can jump out of the building, and Kanani Danielson is so explosive, but I believe that Aneli Cubi-Otineru poses the biggest challenge for Penn State. She is the heart and soul of this Wahine team.

PennStateFan: Again, I think it’s a team issue. A lot of people think Kanani Danielson will be a key for Hawai’i, and I agree, she will be. But if the passing and setting aren’t good enough, Danielson can only be as good as her teammates. It’s all about the team at this point.

DigNittany: What’s been the most pleasant surprise, for you, about the performance of your team this year?

Hawai’iFan: Their poise, and their ability to rally together. They had some big wins early in the season and were able to play very well in the tournament despite not being challenged much during their conference season.

PennStateFan: Simply put: Blair Brown. I thought she was very underutilized last season and with the graduation of All-Americans Nicole Fawcett and Christa Harmotto, she has had the opportunity to really step up and take on a larger role. She’s been simply outstanding this season. She’s become the best right-side blocker and hitter in the country during her junior campaign and she’s been instrumental in the team’s success this season.

Also, I find Alisha Glass to be absolutely fantastic. She’s really guided this team and, in my opinion, ought to be the National Player of the Year for her contributions. She lost two All-American hitters from last season’s record-breaking team and she amazingly has set THIS year’s team to an even higher hitting efficiency. She’s an unbelievable setter and really is the driving force behind this team and their success. Megan Hodge is very popular because of her offensive prowess, but you have to ask: who’s been setting her?

DigNittany: Hawai’iFan, many Penn State Fans aren’t very familiar with Hawai’i Head Coach Dave Shoji. What do you see as the single biggest factor in Coach Shoji’s success?

Hawai’iFan: The single biggest factor? His ability to get the most out of his players. As an example, three former Wahine played on the 2008 US Olympic team (Robyn Ah Mow Santos, Heather Bown, and Kim Willoughby.) These three grew tremendously under the tutelage of Dave Shoji. He just has a knack for helping his players be the best they can be.

DigNittany: So, what are your predictions?

Hawai’iFan: Hawai’i 3-1. Go Bows!

PennStateFan: Penn State in 3. Hawai’i is a very talented team, but the Lions are going to be too much for them. Penn State is more athletic, quicker, more physical, and has the experience on their side. Attempting to beat #1 is a daunting task. The Wahine are going to be feeling the pressure on Thursday and I think it will get to them.

DigNittany: Thanks so much to both of you, and here’s hoping for a great match!