Happy Valley? It sure is if you like volleyball
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP)The best team in Happy Valley doesn't play at Beaver Stadium.
The Penn State women's volleyball squad, playing in quaint but stuffy Rec Hall, has won 92 straight games - tied for the second-longest streak in NCAA Division I team sports.
The remarkable run covers the last two national titles, and the Nittany Lions swept each of their 38 opponents on the drive to the 2008 crown except Nebraska in the national semifinals, when they were extended to five sets.
Two sets away from perfection.
"Losing only two sets the entire season, that's something that most people in our sport think will never be repeated," said Kathy DeBoer, executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association.
Penn State is coming close, though.
Having already lost four sets, this year's squad perhaps isn't quite as dominating as last year's bunch. But there's no question the Nittany Lions (28-0, 16-0 Big Ten) are a favorite for an NCAA "three-peat," steaming toward a seventh straight conference title as the regular season winds down this month.
They play Friday at Purdue (12-15, 4-12) in a match in which the Nittany Lions will likely break their tie on the win-streak list with the North Carolina women's soccer program, which had its record run from 1990-94. Next up would be Miami men's tennis, which won 137 straight matches from 1957-64.
Not one Penn State player admits to thinking about the streak, though.
"When people say how many games we've won," said 6-foot-5 junior Blair Brown, "a lot of us have no idea what the number is."
One-two on the team in kills, Brown and 6-foot-3 senior Megan Hodge form a frontcourt duo that can devastate defenders with their mile-a-minute spikes.
They don't lack for confidence, either. Who can blame them?
"There really isn't any new question that we haven't heard, as far as the winning streak and our success," Hodge said before practice. "We kind of deal with it with a grain of salt and know that, if anything, that just makes it more of a challenge for people to try and beat us."
Lost in the attention over Penn State's accomplishments are success stories at other central Pennsylvania schools.
Division II Lock Haven, about 35 miles north of Penn State's campus in State College, opens the playoffs Thursday against Mercyhurst trying for its eighth NCAA regional title since 1997.
Juniata, about 31 miles south of State College, won national titles in 2004 and 2006. The Division III school is the only one to appear in all 29 NCAA tournaments, and plays a quarterfinal against Trinity, Texas, on Thursday.
Penn State's athletic power game can't compare with the longer rallies and more horizontal games at lower levels, though DeBoer says the success shared by all three schools is remarkable.
The closest beach to State College might be the strips of sand at several state parks. It is thousands of miles from the sport's traditional epicenter in California.
"From a quantity standpoint, you would not grab the state of Pennsylvania and say, 'This is going to be a great volleyball state,"' DeBoer said, adding: "All three of those programs are difference-makers on the national scene."
The ties are especially close between Penn State and Juniata, where coach Larry Bock is a 1971 Penn State graduate. He has 1,216 career wins, and calls former Penn State men's and women's coach Tom Tait his mentor.
Bock's assistant is Heather Pavlik, whose husband is Penn State men's volleyball coach Mark Pavlik. The Penn State men are pretty good, too, with 24 NCAA appearances and national titles in 1994 and 2008.
For the Juniata and Penn State women, the continued success feeds rising expectations.
"Expectations are high, and that can feel uncomfortable, but it's a terrific asset, too," Bock said Wednesday. "When we play another team, our kids expect to win."
Penn State coach Russ Rose's assistant, Dennis Hohenshelt, is a 1993 Juniata graduate. Rose, who has 991 wins over 30 years, runs summer volleyball camps at Juniata and players from both teams often mingle during camp season.
No doubt, though, Juniata's accomplishments get overshadowed by Penn State in a sport that has a small but loyal following. Likewise, the Nittany Lions' record-setting run of success often gets overshadowed on its own campus by the ever-popular football team.
Brown says at times, Penn State classmates ask, "Oh, are you guys good?" She nods sheepishly in mock response and offers her typical answer:
"Kind of, yeah."