Hancock puts Penn State back on top

SEATTLE -- Penn State setter Micha Hancock admits there have been days when, as much as she understood that coach Russ Rose knew what he was talking about, she didn't much feel like talking to him.

"He is very sarcastic … but it's nice to know I have a coach like that pushing me," Hancock said. "I knew we would get along fine because I want to go hard and to win. But, I'm not going to lie, sometimes it was difficult to see him every day and be like, 'I don't want to talk to this guy.' But I know the results he's bringing me."

Saturday at KeyArena, the result the two of them and the rest of the Nittany Lions brought to Penn State was another national championship in women's volleyball. The No. 2 seed Nittany Lions beat a gritty, gutsy Wisconsin squad 3-1, as the No. 12 seed Badgers gave Penn State all it could handle.

During the regular season, Penn State swept Wisconsin twice. But Saturday in the all-Big Ten final, the Badgers came rather agonizingly close to extending the match to five sets. Instead, they fell 25-19, 26-24, 20-25, 25-23.

Two service errors late in the second set cost Wisconsin a chance to tie the match. Even for a team noted for its toughness, you might have expected Wisconsin to be deflated by that opportunity getting away. But that didn't happen. The team that knocked out top-seeded Texas was not about to give up.

The subsequent third-set victory said a lot about the Badgers, even if they didn't end up winning the match.

"This team expected to win," Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said. "I know not a whole lot of people thought we had a chance to do that. But our players did."

In the end, though, Penn State had too many weapons -- including Hancock's serve.

"She's one of the few elite servers where a timeout doesn't faze her, either," Sheffield said. "She comes right back out and rips it."

Hancock, a 5-foot-11 junior, was named the tournament's most outstanding player. She had 48 assists, 16 digs, five kills and three service aces.

She is known for her tough lefty serve -- Sheffield calls it the "biggest weapon in college volleyball" -- and it came through at the most important times Saturday. Although she had some errors on it earlier, Hancock served out the last four points of the match, including two of her aces.

This championship was, perhaps, particularly sweet for Hancock because during last year's national semifinal against Oregon, she suffered a severe ankle injury during the second set that limited her the rest of the match. The Nittany Lions lost to the Ducks.

Hancock said going into Saturday's final that she hoped for a better ending, and she and the Nittany Lions definitely got that. With the victory, Penn State ties Stanford for the most NCAA titles, with six.

The Nittany Lions have won five of the past seven titles in establishing themselves as the dominant program in this sport.

"Everybody's trying to win," Rose said. "We don't have a great state for [high school] volleyball in Pennsylvania, so we need to recruit other areas.

"I was disappointed last year when Micha got hurt, because I thought that was a team that could have won. Some other [Penn State] teams that didn't win I thought were maybe better than the teams that did win. You have to be good, you have to be lucky, you have to be healthy."

Plus, you have to have good coaching, even if Rose is not going to mention that part. Rose not only doesn't ever toot his own horn, he's not all the keen on anyone else tooting it for him. To the contrary, he gave credit to his assistants, past and present -- and also referenced another legendary Penn State coach: the late Joe Paterno.

"I'm just really thrilled for the many people who care about Penn State that we would win a championship on Coach Paterno's birthday," Rose said.

Asked to elaborate on what the volleyball team's success has meant to a university that -- to say the least -- had an enormous amount of negative publicity in recent years, Rose was succinct.

"I'm not going to talk about the things that have been beat around that don't make sense," said Rose, who's been at Penn State 35 seasons. "It's a proud university with a great tradition. I'm not jumping into that mess. But, certainly, Coach Paterno and his family were very dear friends of me and my family."

Rose said all this with his normal, math professor-type voice and lack of facial expression. If there is a coach in any collegiate sport who would show less emotion after winning an NCAA title than Rose does … you might want to check to see if that coach is actually an android. Heck, sometimes you want to check to see if Rose is.

He didn't crack a smile in the post-match press conference -- not that anyone expected him to -- but he did crack a few jokes, as always. But Rose's typical icy-calm demeanor seems to give strength to his team.

The Nittany Lions faced some peril in this NCAA tournament -- especially in an intense regional final against Stanford when they trailed 9-6 in the fifth set -- but they always responded.

Joining Hancock on the all-tournament team were fellow Nittany Lions Ariel Scott, Katie Slay and Deja McClendon, all seniors. McClendon was the most outstanding player in 2010, the last time the Nittany Lions won the championship.

"I couldn't be happier," said Scott, who led Penn State in kills with 21 in her final match. "There was no better way to end my collegiate career. I'm ecstatic."