By RICK SOLEM
LOUISVILLE – Expectations are tricky sometimes. Even annoying.
They can get you as excited as you’ve ever been about a team one minute and disgusted with it the next.
That’s how I felt about the University of Wisconsin volleyball team, after losing to Penn State in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals.
The No. 2-ranked Badgers lost to the No. 4 Nittnay Lions on Saturday, 3-1 (22-25, 25-16, 25-22, 25-19).
All I can take away from the game is the Badgers lobbed easy serve after serve into the net or out of bounds, and sophomore Lauren Carlini, the B1G player and setter of the year, injured her left ankle in the first set and was never the same – therefore we never really got to see what a Penn St.-Wisconsin battle would truly look like.
The Badgers (31-3) were already entering the game the underdogs, having been swept by Penn State 3-0 on Sept. 24. A year ago, the Nittany Lions (32-3) beat Wisconsin to win the National Title – a game, Penn State is quite familiar with. It’s has won the NCAA title six times since 1999 and been to the semifinals 11 times and six of the last seven seasons.
But this match seemed different, started different, at least. Penn State was this mixture of young and old, led by senior setter Micha Hancock – the B1G player of the year the previous two seasons – directing freshmen who haven’t been on this stage. Freshmen like 6-foot-3 Haleigh Washington and Menomonee Falls, Wis., native, 6-foot-1, Simone Lee. They’re tall.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin had the experience top-down. Its youngest impact player was Carlini. Most of its other regulars were seniors, like 5-11 Kelli Bates and 6-foot Courtney Thomas. They’re not as tall. But Wisconsin wasn’t depending on freshmen the way Penn St. was.
Carlini goes down with the score tied 8-8. She heads to the locker room, but returns shortly and the Badgers pull out the victory. Phew. She’s OK. Or not.
After that, she slowly deteriorated, her limp becoming more obvious as the match went on. Unable to get to a pass or a kill – something her team has probably grown dependent upon. Unable to get up for a block. This, from a player that had 43 assists and 17 digs the match before.
Wisconsin could never seem to get into a flow. Blame that on a gimpy setter, but also blame it on something much simpler: serves.
The Badgers had 14 service errors. And the Badgers were not jump serving lasers. They were floating serves into the middle of the net or long, out of bounds. Something you’d expect freshmen to do.
Now, Penn St. had eight service errors – six by Hancock – but it was in control of the last three sets of the match. The Badgers made up for Carlini being hobbled with 28 block-assists. They could not make up for the momentum killer of missed serves when they’re fighting from behind.
In the final three sets, the Badgers could never string together a run or maintain a lead. They never scored more than three in a row.
In those final three sets, when the score got into double-digits, Wisconsin never led in the second set. It led three times in the third set, but never for more than a point (11-10, 13-12 and 21-20). And it led twice in the fourth set (at 10-9 for one point and from 12-11 to 14-13).
Penn St. was just more consistent and in control. Perhaps even composed, despite the freshmen.
Carlini finished with 38 assists and 10 digs. Bates had 12 digs. She and Dominique Thompson each had 12 kills, while Thomas led the team with 13 kills. Taylor Morey had 17 digs for Wisconsin, which had a .155 kill percentage.
Penn State hit .182 led by 16 kills from 6-4 junior, Aiyana Whitney. Hancock finished with 45 assists, Lee had 12 kills and Dominique Gonzalez had 24 digs.