KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) – The Penn State volleyball team might not have been as dominant from start to finish as the previous three editions, but that didn’t matter in the end.
The Nittany Lions are national champions again after taking down the Cal Bears.
Penn State won its fourth straight title Saturday night,
sweeping upstart California in three sets behind the power of Blair Brown and Deja McClendon and a gutsy performance in the key second set.
Brown had 18 kills and 10 digs and McClendon added 16 kills for the Nittany Lions (32-5), who won 19 of their last 20 matches and extended their record number of consecutive national titles.
Penn State won 25-20, 27-25, 25-20. After Katie Slay put down an easy kill to finish the match, she turned her back to the net and welcomed her teammates with open arms as they mobbed her.
“We had some ups and downs throughout the year, so it was a big challenge for us,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said. “We never lost hope. We always felt that if we could get ourselves into certain matches that we could win those matches.”
The Golden Bears (30-4), who won each of their previous five tournament matches by sweeps, lost 3-0 for the first time since Penn State beat them in last year’s regional final. Penn State has beaten Cal four straight years in the postseason, all by sweep.
McClendon, the national freshman of the year, was named the Most Outstanding Player of the final four.
“I’m so pleased about how Deja played this weekend, and Blair had big numbers for the second match and led the match in points,” Rose said. “Katie Slay did what we asked of her, blocked some balls. We came out strong in the first game. The second game was going back and forth and we were fortunate enough to win that game, and that’s where most of the momentum really came from.”
The Nittany Lions, who won their fifth title in program history, had new faces in the lineup and, unlike their unbeaten teams of the past two years, showed signs of vulnerability during the season. Their NCAA-record winning streak ended at 109 in September, and they battled through ups and downs in Big Ten play.
Rose, their 32nd-year coach, said before the tournament that he wouldn’t have considered his team to be the favorite. But the Lions, the No. 4 national seed, again were best at the end.
They dominated Texas in Thursday’s semifinals, posting a three-set sweep, and Saturday’s victory ran their record NCAA tournament win streak to 24 matches in a row. They won 18 of 19 sets in the tournament.
Penn State’s six seniors finished their careers 142-7 and having never finished a season without winning the national championship.
“The legacy we leave, it’s not about numbers,” Brown said. “We’re thrilled to have four national championships. But the legacy we want to leave is the program history, working hard in practice, going hard. We didn’t want to lose that along the way. The most important thing for us was the tradition of the program.”
Penn State put itself on the cusp of the title in a hard-fought second set that was tied 16 times.
Seventh-seeded Cal twice was a point away from winning the set, and tying the match, but couldn’t finish.
Ariel Wilson and Kristin Carpenter blocked Adrienne Gehan to tie it 24-all, but Cal setter Carli Lloyd, the national player of the year, answered with a kill to put Cal up 25-24.
Slay and Carpenter blocked Tarah Murrey to tie it 25-25, and consecutive kills by Brown won the set for the Lions.
Penn State took control of the third set after Ariel Scott’s kill broke a 12-all tie during an 8-0 run for the Lions.
Cal fought off match point three times before Penn State won it. McClendon looked to have the deciding kill when she hammered a monster drive, but the Bears somehow were able to get the ball back over the net. Slay was there to dunk it and set off the celebration.
Carpenter finished with 46 assists, and Wilson added 12 kills for the Lions.
Murrey had 16 kills, and Lloyd had 33 assists and 11 digs.
“Cal is not hanging its heads,” Murrey said. “Every single day we’ve worked so hard, and we’re going to miss all the things we’ve been through. I know it’s going to make us stronger. I know our team is going to be so strong next year and I’m going to do a great job of leading this team next year.”
With nine freshman on the roster—national rookie of the year McClendon and blocking star Slay among them—and a sophomore in setter Carpenter, the Nittany Lions are well-positioned to challenge for titles for years to come.
Rose said it’s too early to make predictions about whether Penn State can make it five in a row.
“We’ll celebrate this great event with these girls,” Rose said. “I have a cigar in the future, and I’ll worry about what’s next when I have to worry about what’s next.”
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