Opposing 'quarterbacks' set bar high
SEATTLE -- Maybe it's a personality thing. That seems to be it with Wisconsin's Lauren Carlini. An athletic 6-foot-2, she could have opted for another position besides setter in volleyball.
But she said hitting was never as much fun for her as setting. When Carlini leads the No. 12 seed Badgers into Saturday's NCAA championship match against No. 2 seed Penn State, she'll be right where she craves being. Carlini loves taking charge and directing traffic, as it were.
"She's a control freak," Badgers coach Kelly Sheffield said. To which Carlini responded, "There's no better way to put it."
OK, so it
"If we weren't practicing, and she was in the gym by herself, she'd be hitting," Penn State coach Russ Rose said of the 5-11 Hancock. "She likes to hit. She's embraced the [setter] position, and she's improved a great deal. She could be a hitter in a lot of conferences. She's got a terrific arm. The way she serves the ball, you could see that she can give it a pretty good stroke."
But there was no question when Rose recruited Hancock that it was strictly to set. This week, she was named a first-team All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association, the second year in a row she's received that honor.
Carlini, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, is a second-team All-American and has more than fulfilled her promise as the top recruit in the nation out of West Aurora High School in Illinois. The Badgers were not in the NCAA tournament last year. This season, with Carlini at setter and Sheffield in his first year as Wisconsin's coach, the Badgers are playing for a national championship.
At Penn State, playing for NCAA titles has become an expectation. If the Nittany Lions win Saturday, it will be the sixth national championship for the program and the first for Hancock. She'll join other Penn State star setters whose names are associated with championships such as Alisha Glass and Bonnie Bremner.
Glass won three titles and currently is setting for the U.S. national team. Hancock was asked if there is any additional pressure being the setter for a program with so much tradition.
"I'm not too big on the pressure thing, because I know it's mental," Hancock said. "But sometimes I could say it has affected my outlook, because I still look at myself like I'm a young kid. But I'm not anymore; I'm 21.
"I look back and say, 'These [previous Penn State] setters were really good,' but at the same time I have to believe in myself."
Hancock certainly didn't always think she was good enough to be in this position. While still in high school in Edmond, Okla., she intended to go to Tulsa, where her older sister played.
"I was thinking, 'This is a safe choice, because I'll be home,'" Hancock said of staying so close to Edmond.
But Hancock surprised herself with how much she improved as a high school sophomore and junior. And when Tulsa's coach took another job, she knew she had to revisit her choice.
"I didn't know how I'd feel about being on a team that maybe wouldn't make it as deep in the NCAAs as I wanted to go," she said.
As for Carlini, she was recruited by former Wisconsin coach Pete Waite, who resigned after the 2012 season. Sheffield took over last December, and Carlini had a decision to make.
"I wanted to stand by my word and what I had said," Carlini said. "So I wanted to see who the coach was first and kind of get a feel of how he wanted to run the program and things like that.
"When he first made that call, we kind of talked about where he wanted to take the program and if I was still on board. I couldn't be more excited. It's been a great fit this year."
The fit for Hancock and Rose has been a little more challenging, something both would acknowledge. Hancock was very talented when she came in as a freshman, but not as polished a setter as Carlini is now.
Rose has a dry, sarcastic wit, and extremely high expectations of players, especially when he knows they can be All-American caliber. So he was demanding of Hancock. She understood why, and appreciated what it was going to help her become.
Doesn't mean she had to enjoy it all the time.
"I always kept in perspective that he was making me a better player," Hancock said. "And even when I was hating him, I knew. He pushes the players he knows can be pushed."
Rose also knew that Hancock would push herself hard. He praises her toughness, which was evidenced in the fact that she played through last year's semifinal loss to Oregon despite suffering a severe ankle injury in the second set that limited her.
She came back in and finished the match because she didn't want to abandon the team in such a critical point of the season. It turned out, though, that her injury was worse than initially suspected: She had three torn ligaments in the ankle, which resulted in a six-month recovery period.
Hancock shrugs when asked if she thinks the Nittany Lions might have won if she hadn't been hurt in that match.
"It's possible … but whatever happens, happens. You never know," she said. "Finishing a different way this year would be great."
Standing in the path will be Carlini and her Badgers. Rose complimented Carlini on her poise and maturity as a freshman, something that can be attributed to many years playing elite-level club volleyball.
"For a long time, there were a lot of smaller-sized setters that were really quick," Rose said, describing how the position has evolved in his 35 years as a college head coach. "There was the smattering of big setters that were a little bit better blockers. But I think with the growth in youth sports and club volleyball, we're seeing [better] setters now.
"Carlini is probably the best example -- [someone] who has played in a great club program that's developed a hundred Division I college setters. She's way further along in her development as far as handling the distractions of being a college volleyball player. She can make good sets out of bad passes."
Hancock has that skill, too, even if she's had to learn the intricacies of her position perhaps more at the college level than Carlini has. Regardless, they are both at the top of their games now, with one match left to win a title.
"Both are extremely talented," Sheffield said. "One is from Oklahoma; one is from Chicago. Both very confident.
"Which one's better? I'm not going to get into that. But I will tell you this: There's no way you could pay me enough to trade my setter for anybody's. But Russ might say the same thing."