Women’s Volleyball Advances to Final Four
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Penn State’s Haleigh Washington leads the nation in hitting percentage as the senior has hit .513 this season, which is on pace to be the second-best hitting percentage in a single season since 2008.
In the regional final matchup against the Michigan State Spartans, Washington only hit .176 and had five kills. However, she had arguably one of her best performances of the NCAA tournament through her defense as she finished the game with a team high 10 blocks, three of them solo.
“They [Michigan State] committed two people on her [Washington] quite a bit and it opened a lot of opportunities,” Penn State head coach Russ Rose said. “The best thing about Haleigh is that she didn’t care that she wasn’t getting kills because she was blocking well and the team was winning.”
The Nittany Lions made their 18th regional final appearance when they took the court against Michigan State, the third time the teams have squared off this season. The Nittany Lions have won both of the previous matchups in four sets.
The Nittany Lions came into the match on a 22-game winning streak with their last loss coming on Sept. 22 to Nebraska.
Unfazed by the previous matchups against the Nittany Lions, the Spartans started off the match perfectly, as they gained the first point of the match on a service ace.
“Having coached for a long time I would say that these matches are tough to play and all the teams that get this far play really hard,” Rose said.
The Nittany Lions responded with an Ali Frantti kill and the first set continued to go back and forth until Penn State went on a run to gain a three-point lead in the set. The lead did not last as Michigan State stormed back into the game and took a 16-13 lead in the set and the Spartans were rolling.
Then a Spartans service error propelled the Nittany Lions to three straight points, forcing the Spartans to use a timeout. The Nittany Lions continued their momentum out of the timeout, using the energy of the crowd and two straight blocks from Washington to take a 21-19 lead in the first set.
The Spartans rallied following the timeout and the Nittany Lions were forced to use a timeout while leading 22-21.
Following the timeout, the Nittany Lions reached its first set point of the match. After a Spartan point, a Simone Lee kill gave the Nittany Lions a victory in the first set, 25-23.
The Nittany Lions carried their momentum into the second set by gaining a 5-1 lead over the Spartans, forcing them to take a timeout. Following the timeout, the Spartans continued to struggle as they gave the Nittany Lions two free points with a hitting and service error. This would be one of six service errors by the Spartans.
The Nittany Lions showed why they were the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament in the second set. Following a Lee solo block and kill, the Nittany Lions took a commanding 12-4 lead and never looked back.
The Nittany Lions continued to hold a 17-10 lead, but the Spartans were regaining some momentum. However, a powerful kill by Washington, her first of the game, shifted momentum back in the Nittany Lions’ favor.
“It was a tougher match for her [Washington] offensively but you know she is a very bright young person and she keeps her head. A lot of other people would have been distracted by their hitting and it would impact the rest of their game but that wasn’t the case,” Rose said.
The Spartans made a late run in the set but it was too little too late as a kill by Heidi Thelen, who finished the game with nine kills, ended the second set. The Nittany Lions only hit .256 in the second set but went on to win the second set 25-17 to take a 2-0 lead in the match.
Lee was a solid offensive option all night for the Nittany Lions, as the senior led the team with 12 kills while adding 10 digs.
The Nittany Lions, who were one set away from their 14th berth into the Final Four, continued their momentum from the first two sets by opening the third set on a 5-1 run. Washington picked up her 10th block of the game and the very next play picked up a service ace to give the Nittany Lions a 7-3 lead.
The Spartans did not back down and got within two points of the Nittany Lions, but a service error shifted momentum right back to Penn State and Michigan State took its first timeout of the set down 12-8.
The Spartans continued to rally, closing within two points of Penn State again. However, a kill by Washington brought the Rec Hall crowd alive and only 10 points away from a regional championship.
A service ace by Lainy Pierce extended the Penn State lead to 17-12 which forced the Spartans to use their last timeout of the set. The teams continued to trade points and Penn State used a timeout with a 22-20 lead in the third set.
A Nia Reed kill gave the Nittany Lions match point, which was defended by the Spartans. Following a Nittany Lions’ timeout, the Spartans again defended Penn State and tied the set up at 24.
The teams traded points and the Spartans took a 26-25 lead. The Nittany Lions again rallied and a block by Abby Detering and Tori Gorrell gave them another match point.
The Rec Hall crowd rose to its feet as the Nittany Lions forced a Spartans hitting error to end the game and send Penn State to the Final Four in Kansas City.
The Nittany Lions return to the Final Four for their first time since 2014, where they won the National Championship.
“I’m very excited, we went freshman year and it was a cool experience,” Thelen said, “but now I can be a part of it on the court and it’s really exciting since it’s my last season.”
Penn State will take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Dec. 16 in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament. This will be the second meeting between these two team this season. Nebraska handed the Nittany Lions their only loss of the season on Sept. 22 in Rec Hall.
“We are going to go out and play hard like we do every day,” Bryanna Weiskircher said, “it doesn’t matter who is on the other side of the net.
Ben Ferree is a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.