Saturday night in sub-zero Omaha, Penn State’s women’s volleyball team finished a perfect season and, for the second year in a row, won the NCAA title.
The Nittany Lions had four first-team All-Americans and lost just two sets all season – both coming in Thursday night’s amazing 3-2 semifinal win against Nebraska. For ESPN.com, I wrote about the issue of whether 38-0 Penn State is the best women’s volleyball team in NCAA history.
The Lions are certainly one of the best. But I’d guess volleyball experts would theorize that Penn State’s perfection was partly a product of a schedule that wasn’t as demanding in comparison to what other championship teams (particularly in the Pac-10) played.
Just as the East Coast/Midwest/South are generally judged as consistently stronger than the West Coast in women’s basketball, it’s the reverse in volleyball.
Ultimately, there’s really no such thing as determining “best-ever.” Still, Penn State’s dominance at least had people asking the question – and the same thing will happen in women’s hoops this season if UConn goes undefeated. (Although it would be very difficult to dethrone UConn 2002 and Tennessee 1998 for that distinction.)
I know, it’s way early to be projecting “perfection” on the Huskies. But I doubt anyone who’s watched much basketball this season would say they’ve seen anyone that could beat UConn unless the Huskies do something to help beat themselves.
The Penn State volleyball team’s only lapse from perfection was in the aforementioned match when the Lions had to go against not just a Huskers group fighting for its life but the 17,000-plus fans at the Qwest Center.
Penn State player Christa Harmotto said it was so loud in the arena at some junctures Thursday night during the Huskers’ comeback from down 0-2 that she and her teammates really couldn’t hear what anybody was saying.
Harmotto is one of those athletes who has such a positive personality that you can see it just watching her on TV. I can say in person, she’s even more a joyful force.
She was the one who kept verbally rallying the Lions as the Huskers were trying to pull the upset, but she joked later that most of what she said was like screaming in the wind anyway.
“The one thing I remember, that I think everybody heard, was just the word, ‘Believe,’ ” Harmotto said.
Once the Lions had survived Nebraska, it seemed unlikely that Stanford would be able to stop the steamroller. And, indeed, it was unfortunate for the Cardinal’s seniors that they went up against what they did the past three years.
In 2006, Stanford lost the NCAA title match to Nebraska at the Qwest Center. That was a terrific Nebraska team with then-player of the year Sarah Pavan, and having to face those Huskers in that atmosphere was more than Stanford could overcome.
Now these past two seasons, Stanford has had to go against the Penn State powerhouse in the final match.
It’s obviously very hard to be that close to a championship and be denied it three consecutive years. But Stanford senior Cynthia Barboza really had a mature and admirable view of what the Cardinal has accomplished and what it’s been like for her to be such a big part of it.
“This has been my favorite year at Stanford by far,” Barboza said Saturday after the final. “This kind of moment parallels something that happened earlier this year.
“We were on a team retreat when we found out the U.S. women won the silver medal (in the Olympic volleyball tournament). I frantically grabbed my cell phone and started texting whichever players I thought had international service on their phones.
“And I texted something like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, you guys were so close. I feel so bad.’ ”
Soon, though, Barboza got a text from U.S. player Heather Bown, a middle blocker who played collegiately at Hawai’i.
“And it said, ‘This is the happiest I’ve ever felt,’ ” Barboza said. “And that’s kind of how I’m walking away from this match, because this season has been unbelievable. In terms of what I’ve learned about myself, what it means to be a team, and what it means to fight.
“I can’t cry about the outcome of this match, but you can hear me choking up right now talking about my teammates. It’s about the entire process, and this year was incredible for so many reasons.”
*-By the way … it’s a really cool time for USA volleyball, coming off its best Olympics ever with golds in men’s indoor and men’s and women’s beach, plus silver in women’s indoor.
How many of the players who competed in Omaha this past weekend might be on the U.S. team for the 2012 and/or 2016 Olympics? I’d bet definitely some, although there was so much talent present that I’d be hard-pressed to guess which ones.