Russ Rose Keeps Focus on Volleyball as Team Churns Toward Another Title
This wasn’t a time to talk about Penn State’s search for a new football coach — not when Russ Rose is focused on winning a fifth-straight national championship.
The women’s volleyball team swept Liberty in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and its coach, Rose, who is on the six-person committee charged with identifying Joe Paterno’s replacement, dismissed an inquiry about his new assignment after Friday night’s victory at Rec Hall.
“We’re here to talk about volleyball,” he said when twice asked about the committee.
Not that there was any objection to doing so. After all, this has recently been the time of year when the university’s spotlight shines brightest on Rose and his program. Penn State has created massive expectations each December after winning the last four NCAA women’s volleyball titles and kick-started another tournament run with a 25-16, 25-16, 25-16 victory, advancing the Nittany Lions into a second round matchup with Delaware at 7:30 Saturday night at Rec Hall.
Unlike those previous four title squads, the 2011 team will have no Big Ten championship banner hanging in the rafters of Rec Hall. It will not be able to say more than half of its starting lineup is made up of first-team AVCA All-Americans, as was the case when the program hit its apex with a record-breaking winning streak a few years ago.
“There’s some years where people’s expectations are you’re a Final Four team without any credentials to be a Final Four team,” Rose said. “This is a team that had a lot of ups and downs throughout the season, and I don’t think the tournament is gonna be any different.
“I haven’t set a bar for this team because I’ve seen enough of their efforts over the course of the season to be smarter than that.”
Growth over the grueling four-month season is what matters to Rose, with the hope his team hits its peak during the tournament. Friday’s victory reflected such improvement, as Liberty hung with the Nittany Lions for the first half of the first game before the Lions used their size and reach at the net to pull away.
Penn State hit just .282 in the first game but swung at a clip better than .350 during each of the final two games, led by sophomore outside hitter Ariel Wilson’s match-high 16 kills.
Defensively is where the Lions separated themselves, controlling the net and holding Liberty to a .075 hitting percentage.
The Lions fell behind 1-3 to open the second set before running nine-straight points to grab control of that game and the match. By then, the packed crowd at Rec Hall could breathe easy knowing an upset was unlikely.
Still, Rose has said there’s a standard to play to that those large crowds have come to expect. He’s built Rec Hall into a mecca for volleyball since taking the reins of the program 32 years ago.
Few times in that tenure, if ever, has a tournament match ended with both teams linked in prayer at mid-court. Liberty, a private Christian university in Virginia, has asked every team to join in prayer after playing. Some teams do, others opt not to.
Rose thought it never more appropriate given the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal that has rocked Penn State for the last month and given him an added assignment during the most important time of his season.
He started his post-match press conference thanking Athletic Director Tim Curley and then-President Graham Spanier for putting in a bid for Penn State to host the opening rounds of the tournament.
Penn State is one of two schools to play in every NCAA Tournament since its inception in 1981, and Friday night marked the start of a tournament unlike any other for Rose.
More attention will be on him than ever — and not just to talk volleyball.