Originally written on The Net Set  |  Last updated 12/21/13
Tonight, someone will hoist that beautiful trophy. This is what we live for. This is why we follow our sport. The time has come to crown a champion. We already know what conference will be taking home the glory, but whose colours, which young women will be the ones to do it? All preambles have pretty much been said. We know who the players are -- the top contenders Penn State, the relative interlopers Wisconsin. In a few short hours, those labels will cease to matter. Only one will remain: champions. ESPN, showing the utmost of respect for women's volleyball, joined with the match already in progress after an interminable basketball game ran past its allotted time. Thank goodness it didn't go into overtime. The score was already 3-1 Wisconsin as we joined. A kill for Megan Courtney broke a brief sideout string, tying the set at 5-all. Wisconsin's Haleigh Nelson got the point back, siding out on the next rally, one that exhibited a terrific set assist from Lauren Carlini. The pass had her drifting into the net, but she managed not only not to fault, but got the ball exactly where it needed to be. A right-side double block re-established Wisconsin's two-point lead. After some more sideouts, Micha Hancock rotated to serve at 9-8, eliciting an overpass that flew all the way into the Penn State back row. The Nittany Lions set their offence, and got the kill for the service point. Hancock's next serve, on 9-all, led to a long rally, ending with a kill up the middle for Katie Slay to give Penn State their first lead of the night at 10-9. The Badgers managed to side Hancock off the service line on the next rally, tying the score at 10's. A let-serve ace for libero Dominique Gonzalez gave Penn State their first two-point lead at 13-11. It went sideout after sideout to the media timeout at 15-13 Lions, though the Badgers had a few chances to win that 14-13 rally. Penn State went up three for the first time after the timeout, as the Badger left side softly bumped the ball over but somehow managed to have it land wide. Wisconsin peeled a point back with some energetic defence, as three different players converged to get a dig. Sometimes that has comical results, but not this time, as they got the ball up, set the middle with Nelson, and got the kill. The Nittany Lions didn't need long to extend back to a three-point lead, doing so at 18-15, which prompted Wisconsin to call timeout. Wisconsin thought they had won the 18-15 rally, the first after the timeout, but a great up from defensive specialist Lacey Fuller kept the rally going. Eventually, Slay terminated up the middle for a four-point Nittany Lion lead. Nia Grant's next serve clipped the top of the tape, disrupting the Badger offence. Hancock slammed home the return with an on-2 kill, seeing she had only the undersized Deme Morales opposing her as a blocker. Wisconsin quickly expended their second and final timeout, down 20-15. This timeout did its trick, as Grant missed her next serve long. At 21-16, Hancock again rotated to serve, but had it land both long and wide. Again the sideouts came quickly, favouring of course the side who were already up by five. On 23-18, Dominique Thompson got solo-roof'd by Courtney, making it set point Penn State. A long and spirited rally went to Wisconsin, with Ellen Chapman finding undefended court on the roll shot. But the Nittany Lions converted set point on service reception, with Ariel Scott ending it on a 25-19 count. Wisconsin got on the board first to begin set 2, siding out with the slide to Thompson on the right side. Then on the next rally, Penn State got the point back despite overpassing, as Slay managed to slap the ball home before Wisconsin could do anything with it. Hancock then went back to serve again. Slay got the next point, too, with a block against a lazy little swooping hit from the Badger side. Hancock just about drilled the championship logo in left-back of the court for an ace to make it 3-1 Nittany Lions. The next rally was long, but also went to the Nittany Lions, as Scott got a one-on-one hitting opportunity against Morales. She's not gonna lose those. A fifth point for Penn State prompted Wisconsin's first timeout of the set. Even on kind of an out-of-system rally, the Nittany Lions extended their run. A set assist for McClendon to Scott on the right side got them their sixth point. Hancock was running toward the ball, but McClendon very smartly realised that she wasn't going to get to it quite in time, so Deja made the set. Finally on 6-1 the Badgers sided out, with Morales getting off high hands and out. A minor breakdown on the Penn State side on offence led to a 4 hits call, making it 6-3. Then Slay got a set assist, on Scott's left-side kill that made it 7-3. Morales' long hit put the Nittany Lions up five for the first time, at 8-3, and Courtney Thomas then managed to get the Badgers back on the board. At 9-4, another falconesque serve from Gonzalez -- though this one managed to clear the net on the fly -- resulted in another ace, giving us the truck-driver score (10-4). Wisconsin scored on serve for the first time (I think) on the 11-5 rally, with Nelson powering up the middle for the kill. At 11-6, Hancock tried to go over on 2, after a bad pass, and had Nelson waiting for her for the block. A block on the left side for Chapman against Grant got Wisconsin back to within 11-8, but Courtney silenced the run on the next rally. They took another service point at 13-10, after many digs gave them a shot to set the middle with Thompson. With Slay out of the play, she found the floor. On 14-11, Hancock again went to serve, but the Badgers passed her just fine. The Nittany Lions dug the resultant Badger hit, but as Hancock was trying to set the next hit, she was whistled for a double. Another kill for Thompson brought Wisconsin back to within a point at 14-13, and then a rare hitting error from McClendon tied the score. Penn State went first ball to Slay up the middle for the sideout to keep themselves in the lead. The Badgers took their first lead of the set a little later at 18-17, after back-to-back right side double blocks. Wisconsin got the first point after the timeout to take the two-point lead, with Morales digging Courtney's cross-court hit, and then getting the kill herself. The Badgers reached 20 first at 20-18, on a long hit from Scott. 21-19 was a long rally, ending with Thompson's wide hit up the middle. It wasn't clear at first whether she got hands, but there was no call. Hancock took to serve for Penn State at 21-20, and McClendon's block-out kill on that rally tied the set again at 21-all. Unsurprisingly, that prompted Wisconsin's last timeout. The Nittany Lions took the lead back on the first rally after the timeout, with Slay again proving to be the Badgers' nemesis up the middle. On 22-21, the Badgers got a fortunate sideout when Hancock was again whistled for a double hit. The Badgers then took the lead back with a kill from Morales, after some sloppy Penn State passing gave Wisconsin a free ball. Penn State took a timeout there, and crucially, Thomas missed her next serve short into the net. A good dig from Badger libero Annemarie Hickey led to another kill up the middle for Thompson, making it set point Wisconsin. And again the serve, this time from Morales, drilled the net. The kill from Scott on the right side gave Penn State their first set point of the second set at 25-24. It looked on that rally like Hancock had the block against Carlini on the latter's on-2 attempt, but that did not terminate the point. But in the end, set 2 ended just as set 1 had, with a kill from Scott on the right side. The teams went to the locker rooms with Penn State up 2 sets to nil. The Nittany Lions got on the board first in set 2, claiming the first two on Grant's serve. At 3-1, Hancock rotated back to serve, and it looked at first like the Badgers had sided her out -- the ESPN graphics said as much -- but everyone figured out that was wrong when Hancock went back to serve again. She claimed another, with a bad pass leading to a bad Carlini set leading to a hit ionto the net, making it 5-1 before a service error sided Wisconsin out. Thomas, one of the servers who had critically served into the net late in set 2, claimed a kill on her own serve, and then McClendon's attempt at an apparent cut shot failed to clear the net. A kill on the right side slide with Thompson tied the score at 5-all. Then a sideout string ensued, with ties at the next three numerical scores. A wide hit from the Badger right side got the Nittany Lions the next service point, making the score 10-8. Wisconsin came level at 11-all, with a smash from Thompson off the overpass. Another seemingly impossible dig from Fuller kept the 11-all rally alive, and again her teammates repaid the effort, getting the point to take the lead back. But Wisconsin claimed the next two, with Morales' kill making it 13-12. Then the Badger block, of which I've probably not said enough in this rundown, rejected Scott to make it 14-12. It was one of those where it probably gets scored as a double block, but it was really just Carlini who was responsible for it. Another kill for Morales, as Carlini found her a 1-on-1, brought us to the media timeout with Wisconsin up 15-12. The run continued after the timeout, reaching a four-point lead after another big kill from Thompson. Coach Russ Rose had a quick trigger finger on his charged timeout, taking it right there, just one point after the media timeout. Morales got another kill after the timeout, making it 17-12, but it was something I'm not sure I've ever seen before. Courtney was ruled as touching the ball last on the way out -- because it hit her in the hair. Bet she was wishing she'd rocked a pixie cut! A missed serve and a solo block from Courtney later, and the Nittany Lions had closed to within 18-15. The Badgers called timeout there. The Badgers got back on the board after the timeout, with the first-ball sideout on the right side for Thompson off the slide play. The teams traded sideouts, and Wisconsin reached 20 first. Wisconsin potentially crucially won a long rally on 21-18, with a tip from Nelson landing in front of Grant in the back row. Then on 22-18, a huge Wisconsin double block against McClendon put them up five, and Penn State called their last timeout. Penn State sided out at 23-19, winning a long rally when Morales' wide hit didn't get a touch call. That sent Hancock back to serve, but Wisconsin got the sideout pretty easily to set up set point. Slay easily sided out for the Nittany Lions on serve receive, giving the serve to McClendon on set point. Or so it seemed for a moment, as Paulina Prieto Cerame entered as a serving sub -- and promptly drilled the net. That sent us to a 4th set as Wisconsin claimed the 3rd 25-20. The Nittany Lions started set 4 with a first-ball sideout, sending Hancock to the service line. She got one on her serve, eliciting an overpass for McClendon to gobble up, but missed her second into the net. A let-ace from Thomas got the Badgers the point back at 2-all. A lift call against Carlini put Penn State back up by two at 4-2. On 4-3, it looked like Scott may have gotten away with an overreach on her kill, but one was indeed whistled against Grant up the middle a little later, tying the score at 5-all. Ties then happened at 6 and 7, before Wisconsin got a service winner to make it 8-7. A sneaky little tip from the pint-sized Morales gave Wisconsin their first true lead of the set at 9-7. A double block up the middle for Nelson and Thomas made it 10-7. A miscue from the Badger back row led to a point for the Nittany Lions, as McClendon's hit on 10-7 was quite likely going long, but they played it up anyway. It led to a hitting error from the Badger front line, drawing Penn State a point closer. McClendon's 8th kill of the night against 7 errors made it 10-9. Then on that rally, Carlini looked like she kinda got away with a lift (dodgy set either way), and Wisconsin capitalised, ending up winning the rally as some Penn State pinball couldn't get the ball back over the net. Scott kill a moment later tied the score at 11-all, sending Hancock to the service line once again. Another strong serve disrupted the Wisconsin offence, and Penn State terminated with McClendon on their first shot of the rally. Hancock went back to Scott on 12-11, and the latter's 20th kill of the night made it 13-11. But Scott then missed long, with no touch called, getting Wisconsin their direly-needed sideout at 13-12. That sent Wisconsin's best server (at least for the night) Thompson back to serve, and she forced the Nittany Lions into a bit of a broken play, tying the score at 13-all. The rally on that score was outstanding, with some terrific defence on display (including a save from the Badgers with the ball right by our commentators Beth Mowins and Karch Kiraly), eventually ending with a right-side termination for Scott. The next rally was quicker, ending with another Penn State termination to make it 15-13 at the media timeout. The Badgers took three in a row after the timeout, with Carlini showing her class. A kill on 2 to get the sideout and then a couple of nice set to the pins leading to kills from Chapman and Thompson gave the Badgers the lead. A good pancake dig from libero Hickey -- which replays showed may have been a generous call -- led to another Chapman kill, prompting Penn State's timeout down 17-15. Penn State got back to level at 17-all after the timeout, though the double hit call against Gonzalez kept them from taking the lead. McClendon's long hit from the pipe, with clearly no touch on the Wisconsin side, put the Badgers back ahead 20-18. Prieto Cerame re-entered the match as a sub there -- guess Coach Rose didn't want to use his last timeout -- and got the kill. But she then rotated to serve, and just like on the last serve of set 3, she got nothing but net. A let-serve ace for the surprisingly quiet Chapman made it a three-point set at 22-19. Rose then took his last timeout, at the last possible second before the signal for service. The late call drew a smattering of boos. Hancock went to the right-side slide with Grant on the first rally after the timeout, getting the kill and sideout. That allowed Slay to sub back in on the front row, but it didn't matter on the next rally, as Morales successfully "tooled" the block for the sideout back to the Badgers. Hickey missed her serve on 23-20, short into the net again, sending Hancock back there again. And the weapon deployed, as the Big Ten Setter of the Year split the passers for the ace. Wisconsin called their first timeout of the set, their lead down to a point. A long rally on 23-22 went to Penn State, with a termination from Slay up the middle. Wisconsin immediately called their second and final timeout, trying to ice the server. But a let-serve ace made it national championship point for the Nittany Lions, and who else but Deja -- the senior came up with the storybook ending to her college career, swatting down the final kill of the match up the middle. #2 Penn State d. #12 Wisconsin (25-19, 26-24, 20-25, 25-23) In a sense, this match proved that context is everything, because if this was some nothing match at a sleepy little invitational in mid-September, no one really would have given it a second thought. But I'm telling you, I was on pins and needles throughout. Big congratulations to the Penn State Nittany Lions for their 6th national championship, equal most in Division I history, and also to Wisconsin for a terrific season in their own right. Hard to say for whom the future is brighter -- Penn State lose a lot of key players to graduation this year, but they've got what some are calling the best freshman incoming class in the history of the sport there to replace them. Wisconsin had just one senior as part of the regular rotation this year, the libero Hickey. And at least from a statistical standpoint, liberos don't tend to be spectacularly difficult to replace. So they'll be back. It's been an awesome season, and the focus now turns to the fellas, as NCAA men's volleyball season gets underway on New Year's Day. Congrats again to Penn State, and to tournament MOP Hancock for her incredible serving this weekend. The Nittany Lions are top team in the land tonight.
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