Experience gives edge to Penn State
No. 2 Penn State (33-2) vs. No. 12 Wisconsin (28-9)
BY THE NUMBERS: Penn State holds a 42-7 series edge over fellow Big Ten team Wisconsin. This season, the Nittany Lions swept both meetings with the Badgers, winning 25-22, 25-17, 25-21 at Penn State and 25-23, 27-25, 25-16 at Wisconsin.
This will be the sixth time schools from the same conference meet in the Division I women's volleyball final. The other five (1981, '84, '92, '94, 2002) involved members of what now is the Pac-12.
HOW THEY MATCH UP: Either way this final goes, something historically notable will happen. If Penn State wins, the Nittany Lions will tie Stanford for most NCAA women's volleyball titles, with six. If Wisconsin wins, it will become just the second school -- Penn State is the first -- east of the Mississippi River to win the title. This is the first NCAA volleyball final between two schools located east of the Mighty Mississippi.
For Penn State, this is familiar territory. The Nittany Lions won four titles in a row from 2007-10, and then made the national semifinals again last year. The program's first NCAA title was in 1999.
For Wisconsin, this is a return to where the program was in 2000. Then, the Badgers lost a 3-2 heartbreaker to Nebraska.
Russ Rose is in his 35th season as coach at Penn State and is an institution in volleyball. Kelly Sheffield is in his first season at Wisconsin. He was head coach at Albany from 2001-07, and then at Dayton from 2008-12. Sheffield was an assistant at Clemson, Virginia and Houston prior to that, after spending several years coaching at the high school and club levels.
Rose has the far-more experienced team when it comes to previous NCAA tournament success. Wisconsin wasn't even in the NCAA field last year after a 17-16 season.
But … we saw how much that mattered in the Badgers' semifinal upset against defending national champion Texas. Wisconsin beat the Longhorns 3-1, and held them to a .156 hitting percentage.
The Badgers' scrappiness and defensive hustle clearly put the Longhorns on their heels from the start, and they never fully recovered. Not to take away from Wisconsin's effort, but Texas contributed to its own demise with uncharacteristic errors in almost all facets -- serving, serve-receiving, passing and hitting. Blocking was the only thing the Longhorns did well, and that wasn't enough.
Credit Wisconsin for forcing some of that, but don't expect to see it from Penn State. Admittedly, no one expected to see it from Texas, either. But the Nittany Lions were so sharp in their 3-0 sweep of No. 3 seed Washington in the second semifinal, it's difficult to imagine them giving much away to the Badgers.
Keep an eye on the setters, because both are stars. Penn State junior Micha Hancock is a first-team AVCA All-American. Wisconsin's Lauren Carlini is a second-team All-American and the Big Ten freshman of the year.
EDGE: We have to go with Penn State. Did Texas, inadvertently, underestimate Wisconsin? Perhaps, but Penn State won't. The Nittany Lions' seniors won a national championship as freshmen, and have been focused all season on ending their careers with a second. Texas' poor start let the door open for Wisconsin to take control of their match, and the Badgers never let up. The Nittany Lions will be determined to dominate from the opening serve as much as they did Thursday.