Courtesy of Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer
There have been 37 national champions since the NCAA DI women’s volleyball National Championship first began in 1981. More than a third of those championships since the events inception belong to Penn State and Stanford, two programs both very familiar with each other on the court.
The Nittany Lions and Cardinal have each won seven national titles, tied for the most of any NCAA DI women’s volleyball program nationally. Between the two teams, both programs have met four times in the national championship game, three of which were won by the Nittany Lions.
In a scheduling quirk that has both teams meeting twice in the first month of the season, this ultra-competitive series once again comes into the spotlight.
The Nittany Lions took the first match in Texas just six days ago, but the perennial west coast powerhouse and last year’s national championship squad can never be counted out.
It’s the eighth consecutive season that the Nittany Lions and Cardinal have met either in the regular season or the postseason, most of which being early-season affairs with the recent scheduling of the rotating Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge.
While an early season and a postseason matchup have come to be fairly common occurrences, Penn State and Stanford will meet in the opening two months of the season this weekend for the first time since 1997.
For Penn State head coach Russ Rose, he views these matchups as a benchmark to assess the team as they prepare for what’s ahead, with a challenging Big Ten schedule ahead featuring even more of the most elite programs in the nation.
“We play Stanford for a reason,” Rose said. “We play great competition in the Big Ten and you only have four weeks in the preseason to play other teams, so I always wanted to guarantee that I was playing one of the best programs and teams in the country. I thought Stanford always fit that bill.”
The straight set win last week may have looked impressive, but with a team like Stanford, there will never be anything easy when it comes to winning. Although Stanford has been challenged with some health issues, Rose was quick to point out that Penn State will have to be careful not to think back too much on their accomplishment, as it’s still early in the season.
“There was nothing dominant about (Penn State’s win) in my mind,” Rose said. “It was a match where two teams were battling. We played the defending national champion without one of their starting All-American outsides. You don’t want to celebrate winning a match like that because it’s the first weekend in September and the season is a really long one.”
For Stanford, 2017 presents a bit of transition as former Illinois head coach Kevin Hambly was named the sixth head coach in program history following the retirement of 16-year Cardinal head coach John Dunning.
Rose and Dunning met twice in the national championship match at their respective programs, with Rose winning both matchups. Rose also bested Stanford in 1997 and 1999, then coached by AVCA Hall of Famer Don Shaw.
From the student-athlete perspective, the Nittany Lions appreciate the competitive series just as much as Rose, understanding the history between the two team and the success both programs have enjoyed.
“It’s a huge rivalry with Stanford,” sophomore Kendall White said. “They’re tied with us in national championships no matter what. It’s obviously a huge deal for us to come out and beat them.”
The Nittany Lions aren’t too quick to forget the losses along the way. Last year, Stanford took the early season meeting in straight sets, something that fueled Penn State in last week’s win and even into preparation for the second matchup.
While every game as a challenge and the Nittany Lions know better than to focus on one opponent more than any another, there’s still a little added intensity when it comes to the Cardinal.
“It’s different when you’re playing the No. 1 team,” White said. “It’s definitely a factor.”
This weekend’s tilt against Stanford has an extra wrinkle, as the Nittany Lions will take on an undefeated Colorado team the night before, in the first of two Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge outings.
“We have to get used to scouting two teams at a time, being able to do that is good for us,” White said.
Back-to-back games can be physically challenging at times, but the Big Ten schedule is centered around that layout and this weekend provides a prime opportunity to test conditioning.
“It’s a lot, but that’s how the Big Ten is,” senior setter Abby Detering said. “Having (last weekend and this weekend) was a huge thing because it’s preparing us for the Big Ten season.”
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