Underdog Lions eager to face Huskies in semis

If Russ Rose is worried about having to play what amounts to a road match Thursday night in the semifinals of the NCAA Women's Volleyball Championships, it doesn't show. The Nittany Lions' famously implacable head coach said earlier this week that he's not particularly concerned that the crowd at Seattle's KeyArena will be against him when his team takes on Pac-12 champion Washington for a spot in the title match Saturday night. 
"I hope they're cheering against me," Rose said, drawing a distinction between himself and his players. "I'm immune to that sort of stuff.
"It makes it all the more exciting," he added. "The energy's a little bit higher and the kids should be thrilled about that."
While KeyArena is officially a neutral site - the Huskies typically play their home matches at the school's on-campus gym about five miles away - there's no doubt that the crowd will be behind them in their match against the second-seeded Nittany Lions.
But Washington (30-2) will have a lot more going for it than just a big cheering section. The Huskies also feature outside hitter Krista Vansant, the Pac-12 MVP and a national player of the year candidate who did much to burnish her postseason award credentials in a five-set victory over USC in the regional finals last weekend. Washington rallied after losing the first two sets, a comeback spearheaded by Vansant's 38 kills and 30 digs. Rose called it "an incredible performance."
Although Penn State (32-2) hasn't faced Washington this season, it knows all about Vansant, a junior from Redlands, Calif. "We recruited her," Rose said. "We were very familiar with her talents. She's really improved a great deal at Washington, and I wouldn't think that that's the exception. I think all the players improve there, and Jim [McLaughlin] is a great coach and he and his staff do a terrific job. There's a reason they've had all the success they've had, both in their conference and nationally."
The matchup between Vansant and Penn State's imposing block, led by senior middle hitter Katie Slay, will likely be one of the keys to the match. Slay had a season-best 10 blocks in the Nittany Lions' five-set victory over Stanford in the regional finals. She had five of the Lions' final nine points in their 15-11 comeback victory in the decisive fifth set.
The winner of Thursday's match, which will air on ESPN2 beginning at 9:30 p.m., will face either top-seeded Texas or Wisconsin on Saturday for the national championship.  
The Nittany Lions have won five NCAA titles and are getting set to make their 11th appearance in the national semifinals. Because of their remarkable history, it's not often that they experience the sensation of feeling like underdogs. They may get to experience it on Thursday night, however, and that's fine with junior setter Micha Hancock.
"The underdog thing is a fun way to try and win a match," she said.