Dropped Sets and the Pursuit of Perfection: How the Final Four Teams from 1998 to 2009 Stack Up

Perfection in sports is rare. The Penn State Women’s Volleyball team came close in 2008, going 38-0 and dropping only two sets all season (those two coming in the classic NCAA Semifinal match against Nebraska in Omaha).

This season, Penn State extended its streak of consecutive sets without a loss to 141, before losing a set to Iowa at Rec Hall on October 2nd, followed by another dropped set on October 7th, (this time to Ohio State), and then two more against Michigan on October 16th, and ended with a total of eight in 2009.

Which has caused many volleyball fans around the country to wonder just how good the 2009 Penn State team really is. It was a fair question.   As it turned out, they were good enough to win their third consecutive NCAA Championship, but it certainly wasn’t easy.

To put their season in perspective, we took a look at the records of all the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Final Four teams from 1998 on (admittedly, somewhat arbitrary) — how many sets did those teams drop during the course of their seasons?

Many volleyball fans probably know the answers by heart. We didn’t — we had to look them up, and in a few instances, we couldn’t track them down (is it just us, or is Wisconsin’s site particularly hard to navigate?).

One thing stands out: Perfection is very hard to achieve. Only four NCAA Champions (in this admittedly limited sample) have dropped fewer than 10 sets in their Championship season (Penn State with a 114-2 record in 2008, Penn State with a 114-8 record in 2009, Long Beach State at 108-8 in 1998, and USC at 105-8 in 2003). The most lost sets by a Final Four team through 2009? A tie between Minnesota in 2003 (85-49) and Tennessee in 2005 (70-49).

Editors Note: We are not statisticians, nor are we perfect. If you identify any errors, please feel free to contact us.

Won Lost Records (Matches and Sets): Final Four Teams from 1998 to 2009

2008Penn StateBig TenFirst3801142
2009Penn StateBig TenFirst3801148
1998Long Beach Big WestFirst3601088
2003USC Pac 10First3501058
2000NebraskaBig 12First34010213
1999Penn State Big TenFirst36111015
2006Nebraska Big 12First33110114
2005WashingtonPac 10First3219810
2002USC Pac 10First3119512
2007Penn State Big TenFirst34210418
2001Stanford Pac 10First33210121
2004Stanford Pac 10First3069835
2001Long Beach Big WestSecond331NANA
1998Penn StateBig TenSecond3411046
2005Nebraska Big 12Second33210115
2009TexasBig 12Second2929113
2007Stanford Pac 10Second32310124
1999Stanford Pac 10Second3139518
2000WisconsinBig TenSecond334NANA
2008Stanford Pac 10Second3149523
2006Stanford Pac 10Second3049219
2004MinnesotaBig TenSecond33510534
2002Stanford Pac 10Second32510227
1998Nebraska Big 12Semi-finals3229916
2001Nebraska Big 12Semi-finals3129414
1999PacificBig WestSemi-finals323NANA
2008Nebraska Big 12Semi-finals3139721
2000USCPac 10Semi-finals2938720
2004WashingtonPac 10Semi-finals2838923
2006UCLAPac 10Semi-finals33410424
1999Long Beach Big WestSemi-finals3149523
2008TexasBig 12Semi-finals2949424
2006WashingtonPac 10Semi-finals2959226
2007USC Pac 10Semi-finals2959135
2005Santa ClaraWCCSemi-finals2758830
2001ArizonaPac 10Semi-finals2557925
2004USC Pac 10Semi-finals2367632
2007CaliforniaPac 10Semi-finals2688736
2009MinnesotaBig TenSemi-finals2898841
2003MinnesotaBig TenSemi-finals26118549

As an aside, even with those two lost sets, we loved the 2008 Penn State-Nebraska semifinal match.  Here’s why: