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Nittany Lions lay it all on the line in NCAA title win

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Loose is one thing. Loose is calm, relaxed, easily focused. What the Penn State volleyball players do, when they really get going, is something closer to frantic than loose. It's like a jailbreak, with the screaming and the fist pumping. Lots of yelling -- almost all of it at each other, and almost all of it to the good.

Or, as sophomore setter Alisha Glass explained it with a smile, "The other night, we were screaming and yelling while we were still warming up on the sport-court outside the gym. The other team is probably going, 'We haven't even stepped on the court.'"

Bad news for the other team: Penn State eventually steps on the court.

And in the crucible of the NCAA Division I Volleyball Championship against top-seeded Stanford on Saturday night, it was the Nittany Lions' rock-and-roll attitude toward the game that essentially carried them through. Hey, for this team, frantically loose works.

After losing two straight games, the second by 11 points -- letting Stanford tie the match at 2-2, Penn State simply regrouped, slapped on a happy face and took the championship. With Glass setting for Christa Harmotto and Nicole Fawcett, the Lions reeled off seven straight points in the deciding game to win 30-25, 30-26, 23-30, 19-30, 15-8.

"We demanded it of each other," said Fawcett, who finished with 19 kills and delivered a couple of blazing putaways in the fifth game. "We weren't going to let them pull away from us.

"If we were going to go down, we were going to go down with a fight. We knew that just because they beat us by 11 points in the fourth game, we weren't going to roll over and let them take it -- and we weren't going to be hesitant whatsoever. We were just going to just go out and have fun, and play volleyball as we know how to."

That was good enough to push back Stanford, which reached the title match for the second year in a row but ran out of gas in the deciding game. After hitting a gaudy .535 in its Game 4 rout and grabbing a quick 4-3 lead in Game 5, the Cardinal wilted, finishing with a negative percentage in the finale.

And Game 4 seems as good a place as any to go looking for how the championship was won. After putting together two very nice games to take a 2-0 lead, Penn State simply fell out of sync in its Game 3 loss, and in Game 4, Stanford looked like the best team in the country. A contest that was 20-16 at one point dissolved into a series of beautiful sets by Bryn Kehoe and dagger kills by Cynthia Barboza and superstar freshman Alix Klineman, and it was over before Penn State knew what had happened.

But the Lions are proof that you can smile and win at the same time. The between-games huddle was brief, barely informative, and heavy on the jokes and the motivational speeches.

"I think it goes back a little to the coaching staff," said Fawcett, a junior outside hitter. "We like to have fun, we like to laugh, and it's like our coach told us a few days ago: Life's too short for us not to enjoy and laugh about it. And we do that. We like to joke around, and it keeps us loose and focused on the game, not overthinking it."

That coach, Russ Rose, helped earn the program's second national championship by putting together a team capable of vicious hitting and quality serving. In the title match, Rose had three players hit .400 or better: Harmotto, Glass and Arielle Wilson.

More to the point of this team, though, Rose allowed the loose attitude to flourish. As long as his players were getting their work done, Rose didn't mind the jokes, the dancing, the goofing around. Quite the contrary.

Rose said that he and Stanford coach John Dunning were nearly opposite characters in that respect, with Dunning's team closely reflecting his calm, controlled manner in its general refusal to ruffle.

"They [the Stanford players] don't seem to have a lot of emotional highs," Rose said on the eve of the championship. "I think our team gets a little crazier, and I think it serves us well.

"They should be a little crazy. What a great time. What a great place to be. There's no pressure on them. They're 18- to 20-year-old female athletes who have an opportunity to compete for a national championship. It'd be foolish for somebody to tell them to calm down."

Dunning, after seeing the way the championship ended, had to concur.

"They just put their heart out on the floor," Dunning said. "They were ready to start Game 5."

Ready to finish it, as well. Frantically loosely.

Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland" has been optioned for film/TV development by ESPN Original Entertainment. His book "Six Good Innings," about one town's consistent ability to produce Little League champions, will be released in July 2008. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, he can be reached at mark@markkreidler.com.