The California-AWOL NCAA Division I Women’s semifinal was not completely void of Southern California talent.
Three Southland standouts came up big in Thursday’s semifinals as 13,385 fans watched unranked Michigan fall against No. 3 Texas (25-11, 21-25, 23-25, 25-12, 15-11) and No. 5 Oregon upend No. 1 Penn State (21-25, 30-28, 25-22, 25-19).
Sha’Dare McNeal, the talented 6-1 utility player from Fallbrook (San Diego, Calif.) has been a huge contributor for the Longhorns, earning them a fourth appearance in the NCAA finals, with their lone Championship in 1988, when Mick Haley led the team.
McNeal was on fire in the middle, terminating the ball on the slide and catching a talented Michigan defense on their heels. She contributed to Texas’ 63 kills, adding 12 and hitting an impressive .500 clip. She also had 4 blocks and 12 digs to help the Longhorns back in the saddle.
McNeal earned an AVCA All-America Honorable Mention nod and her No. 3 ranked Longhorns will look to help 12-year head coach – recently named AVCA Coach of the Year – Jerritt Elliot to his first-ever NCAA title.
“We’ve been good all year,” Elliott said of the win. “We’ve been good in the crunch. You never see them give up, even when we give up games. Tonight, you could see they wanted to stay in this routine and battle.”
Junior setter Lauren Plum of Poway, Calif. has had an outstanding year for the Oregon Ducks, leading them to their first-ever NCAA Final, although the Ducks were crushed by Texas in straight sets. The 5-9 setter was just named to the AVCA All-America First Team and has racked up 1,526 assists and 247 digs this season. On Thursday, she led her team with 51 assists as the Ducks snuck past No. 1 ranked and five-time NCAA champ Penn State.
Plum did a great job feeding her hitters and spreading the ball around. She sealed the deal and closed out the match in the fourth set, 25-19, with an impressive dump in transition that found the floor.
Another solid contributor was Oregon’s 6-2 junior middle blocker, Ariana Williams. The Riverside Poly grad was a force in the front row with four kills and four blocks. She has racked up 297 kills and 82 blocks this season.
Ironically Plum and Williams were roommates as freshman and have a special connection.
“Lauren has been setting me perfectly lately, making sure all my sets are off the net and in the right location.” said Williams.
Williams has earned most improved player by the Ducks for the last two seasons.
The Ducks have had Penn State’s number of late, ending PSU’s 94-match home winning-streak during the regular season last year in four sets and Thursday ripping away the Nittany Lions’ chance at a sixth national championship.
“I think they’re mentally tough,” Oregon head coach Jim Moore said. “And they are willing to do what it takes. So they’ll work as hard as they possibly can at any given moment. And that’s cliché, I understand that…that’s their personality.