Ream proves PSU made of team effort

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Kelsey Ream sat on the bench with tears in her eyes and waited. Penn State women's volleyball assistant coach Kaleena Davidson told her to be ready. She was.

As Ream got up to enter the game, tears still flowing, the 5,312 fans at Rec Hall rose to their feet to recognize the senior leader.

"There were definitely butterflies," Ream said. "It was awesome. I made the serve."

Ream, 22, had been sidelined from the volleyball team since suffering a torn ACL in her left knee during a practice in April. It was the first injury of her career. On Nov. 14, Ream returned in a limited role to the No. 1-ranked Nittany Lions.

"When she came back to serve, the place went nuts," Gary Ream, Kelsey's father, said.

Now, as undefeated Penn State looks to make history and win a third consecutive NCAA championship, Ream is determined to leave Happy Valley with another title.

"It would be pretty amazing," Ream said of three-peating, following last year's undefeated championship season. "Three is history-making. It would be a great honor."

Before they could advance to the NCAA tournament semifinals in Tampa, Fla., top-seeded Penn State had to go through the Gainesville Regional last weekend. After defeating 16-seed Florida 3-0, Ream got her chance to make a mark in the postseason.

With Penn State leading 9-seed California 21-16 in the second set, Ream entered the game to serve. While Ream served, the Nittany Lions scored three straight points, including a service ace by Ream.

"I was thrilled for her," Becky Ream, Kelsey's mother, said after Penn State won the Gainesville Regional on Saturday. "You see her senior year ticking away. It was very emotional. It [the injury] was heart-wrenching."

With the defeat against California, Penn State recorded its 100th straight victory -- the longest consecutive winning streak in women's college sports history.

Penn State will play 12-seed Hawaii on Thursday (9 p.m. ET on ESPN2, ESPN360.com) for a chance to advance to the national championship match. If the Lions advance, they will face either Minnesota or Texas -- who play in Thursday's first semifinal match (7 p.m. ET on ESPN2, ESPN360.com) -- on Sunday.

Just seven months ago, the thought of Ream's contributing to another championship was bleak. She missed the first 27 matches of this season.

Ream, a hotel, restaurant and institutional management major, considered taking a medical redshirt, which would have allowed her to come back for a fifth year of eligibility in 2010. With a large, talented recruiting class coming to Penn State next year, Ream decided she'd rather finish her career with her fellow seniors instead of struggle for playing time next year.

Despite being medically cleared to return to the team, Ream continues to play a limited role in the Nittany Lions' quest for another championship. Listed as a middle hitter, Ream is most often brought into games to serve and play defense. She still can't jump or slide like she could before the injury.

"It [accepting a limited role] was tough," Ream said. "I want to be out there. You have to learn what your role is and adapt to that."

There was never a doubt in my mind that at some point she'd work herself back into a position where she could help in a different way. I think she's a great teammate.

-- Penn State women's volleyball coach Russ Rose, on Kelsey Ream

Ream's perseverance has earned the respect of her teammates and coaches.

"I think that Kelsey shows us what determination really is," senior setter Alisha Glass said. "I think the fact that she's come back and done all that she can to contribute to our team, I think that shows a lot to us as teammates.

"I think that she's gotten herself in a position to play, and to be on the court with us just brings a lot of energy when she comes in and [we have] a lot of respect for her."

"There was a time when she couldn't play," coach Russ Rose said. "There was never a doubt in my mind that at some point she'd work herself back into a position where she could help in a different way. I think she's a great teammate."

Now Ream enters the final few days of a volleyball career that began as a freshman at State College (Pa.) Area High School. After playing basketball as a kid, Ream decided to follow her older sister, Lindsay, and play volleyball.

She also followed in the family tradition of attending Penn State. As a State College family, Ream's parents and siblings all attended their hometown school. Her brother, Brandon, played football at Penn State from 2002 to 2006.

As Ream and her fellow seniors prepare for their final weekend of college volleyball, their focus is on leaving Tampa with a 102-match winning streak.

Rose, who is one victory away from career victory 1,000, knows how eager teams will be to try to knock off the heavily favored Nittany Lions.

"The next team we play will write a slogan on a T-shirt if they beat you," Rose said of the competition against the Lions' streak.

"We all want to go out with a win, so there is pressure there," Ream said. "But there's not pressure that will hinder us."

Five weeks after she began her senior season, Ream hopes to end the way she started -- as a champion with tears in her eyes.

Patrick Carney is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.