Ariel Scott was a freshman on the Penn State women's volleyball team when it swept California two years ago to claim the national championship. It was the Nittany Lions' fourth NCAA title in a row, and even though the team's graduation losses were severe following their triumphant run through the tournament, all the off-season talk was about whether they would vie for a fifth consecutive crown.
They didn't. Dynasties are fragile things, and Penn State's freshman-laden squad fell short of the title in 2011, losing to eventual national UCLA in the regional semifinals.
But even as the team was struggling last season - at least by its lofty standards - it was laying the groundwork for another championship drive. Now, that effort is about to reach its crescendo.
On Thursday night, Penn State will face Oregon in the national semifinals. The Nittany Lions (32-2) are seeded first overall, while the Ducks (29-4) are seeded fifth. The match will begin at 9 p.m. at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky., and will be televised by ESPN2.
"We're really excited," Scott said. "Last year, we didn't get to experience it, and most of the girls on the team have never been there, so I'm really excited for them and really excited for the team."
Scott, a junior outside hitter who was recently named Big Ten Player of the Year, said the team's chemistry has improved this season. "The leadership is much better this year than it was last year," she said. "We're all more experienced and we're all more confident. We're more comfortable being leaders."
They will need to be at their best to hold off the Ducks, who are having the best season in the program's history. They've never been to the national semifinals before, but they certainly didn't appear to be experiencing any jitters in their victory over Nebraska in the regional final. Oregon romped past Big Ten power Nebraska, 3-1, losing the first set then winning three in a row before a decidedly pro-Cornhuskers crowd in Omaha.
One of the keys to Oregon's surge has been outside hitter Alaina Bergsma, a 6-foot-3 senior who is averaging nearly five kills per set (and also happens to be this year's Miss Oregon USA). "She's a great player," Penn State coach Russ Rose said. "[Nebraska coach] John Cook said last week she was the best player they played against. They had a pretty similar schedule [to Penn State's]. So if he says she's the best player they've played, then my assumption is that that's a pretty accurate statement."
Like the school's football team, the Ducks like to set a quick tempo. "Their style of play is something we haven't seen, and it'll be a challenge," Rose said. "We can't replicate it in practice. Their setter [junior Lauren Plum] is great, the speed that they do everything at is totally different than anything we've experienced in our conference. … It'll take us time to get accustomed to what they're doing. We can't just talk about it and think we can step right in and neutralize it."
The winner of the Penn State-Oregon semifinal will face either Texas or Michigan in the championship match Saturday night.
The Nittany Lions have had the Longhorns' number at the NCAA tournament the past few years, defeating them in the final in 2009 and again in the national semifinals the following year. This past September, Penn State swept Texas at the Nike Big Four Volleyball Classic at Rec Hall.
Penn State leads the all-time series against Michigan 42-3, but in October the Wolverines gave the Lions one of their toughest matches of the season, rallying from two sets down to tie the match at 2-2 before falling to Penn State in the decisive fifth set.
Penn State's continual success - highlighted by five national championships - has raised expectations, both internally and externally. Rose is quick to note that this year's team doesn't have the depth that some of his past teams possessed, but his players fully expect to succeed as they head into the final matches of the season.
Anything short of a title, Scott said, "would definitely be a disappointment, since I think we're talented enough to do so and we work really hard. It would definitely be disappointing."