Penn State, Stanford meet again in volleyball semis
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Penn State's bid for a second consecutive national championship runs through top-seeded Stanford.
It's a true matchup of blue bloods -- both schools have won six national titles and are tied for the most NCAA tournament appearances all time with 34.
The programs have met several times in big matches, and it has created a friendly rivalry between Penn State coach Russ Rose and Stanford coach John Dunning. Rose defeated Dunning in the national final in 2007 and 2008. This season, Stanford (33-1) defeated Penn State (34-3) on Sept. 5, raising the stakes a bit for Thursday's semifinal in Oklahoma City.
''I like John,'' Rose said. ''We're good friends. You never like the downside of beating one of your friends, but you also hold your head high when you know it's a great match. We've had some great matches, and it's not personal.''
The only loss for Stanford this season was at Washington on Nov. 26. Dunning said it was an eye-opening experience.
''They showed us that we weren't ready for this week yet; that we had some things that we had to go back to the gym and really believe in what we were going to do, because they made us not look the way we wanted to look,'' he said. ''And so I'm proud of this group, because they just gritted their teeth and said let's go next.''
In the other semifinal, Texas (27-2) plays BYU (29-4) for a chance to reach Saturday's championship match.
Texas has reached the national semifinals for the third time in six years, and the Longhorns won it all in 2012. BYU, the only non-power five conference team in the field, upset Nebraska in the regional final.
Texas was favored in the national semifinals last year against Wisconsin before losing. The Longhorns say they've learned their lesson.
''I think this year we're focusing on the game ahead of us, which is BYU,'' Texas outside hitter Haley Eckerman said. ''Last year, I think we may have overlooked Wisconsin a little bit. And this year, we know that BYU's good. Obviously, they've gotten here. So we have to focus on BYU, and only BYU, and making sure that we're taking care of what we need to do against them.''
BYU coach Shawn Olmstead said he knows his team is the underdog in the tournament. He believes his players have the talent and the proper approach to make some noise.
''They've really bought into just getting better every single day at practice,'' he said. ''We've finished every day at practice and we look back on it and I can tell in these kids that they just feel like they've gotten better that day.
Some things to watch in the semifinals:
BYU right side Jennifer Hamson took last year off from volleyball to play basketball, and she led the Cougars to the Sweet 16. The 6-foot-7 star returned to volleyball this season and turned in an AVCA All-America first-team season.
''She can play very high above the net,'' Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. ''She can pretty much go over us if she's in rhythm and able to score. She has great range. And when she's on fire, she's one of the best players in the country.''
Penn State setter Micha Hancock, the MVP of last year's national championships, is back in Oklahoma. She played high school volleyball in Edmond, an Oklahoma City suburb. Stanford's Inky Ajanaku is from Tulsa, about a two-hour drive from Oklahoma City. Both are AVCA first-team All-Americans.
Texas has eight in-state players, and each of the other national semifinalists has a Texan on their rosters. Elliott said Texas has surpassed California as the top place to find volleyball recruits.
''When I talk about hotbeds, it's the number of high end recruits, the sheer number, how physical they are, how many different players can play different positions - just the sheer rankings in terms of where you're seeing the rankings go right now,'' Elliott said.
BYU's Whitney Young is the shortest non-setter or libero on her team, yet the 6-foot sophomore leads the nation in blocks per set and total blocks.
''I think she's kind of got a nose for the ball,'' Olmstead said. ''She's very instinctive, and she's been really good at that, and getting in the right direction of the hitters, and also recognizing the game plan of the opponent. And I think she's also got really good help around her in terms of the people to the right and to the left. She's also lightning fast right and left.''
Hamson, a formidable presence, but she's not the tallest player at the tournament. Stanford's Merete Lutz, a 6-foot-8 middle blocker, has that honor. She is a second-team AVCA All-American.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP