In the mid-2000s, Penn State became the preeminent powerhouse in college volleyball. The Nittany Lions won four straight national championships and six in an eight-year span under the direction of legendary coach Russ Rose. The Nittany Lions won eight straight Big Ten titles and 10 in 11 years. Penn State set an incredibly high bar for both the Big Ten and the country.
Since joining the Big Ten in 2011, Nebraska Coach John Cook has been trying to clear that bar.
“Every decision we make in recruiting, how we train, what systems we're going to run, can we beat Penn State?” Cook said. “So they've been the measuring stick for us on how we build our program and how we look at it is can we beat Penn State? Now that we're in the conference with them, it's the same thing. Because look at who has won the Big Ten Conference. It's only a couple schools and Penn State's won the most. So that's how we approach things.”
That approach has led to six straight wins for the Huskers against the Nittany Lions over the course of the last three seasons. Nebraska is hoping to make it seven on Thursday as the fifth-seeded Huskers take on the top-seeded Nittany Lions in the Final Four.
“I just think ever since I've been here and I've been old enough to understand Nebraska volleyball, that's been a great match to watch,” senior setter Kelly Hunter said. “I know my time here, we've had some great matches against them, and I think tomorrow will be another great match-up.”
Nebraska is undefeated against Penn State with Hunter, a Papillion native, in the lineup. The last time the Nittany Lions beat the Huskers was on Nov. 29, 2014. Hunter was redshirting that year.
Ahead of Thursday’s match-up, which serves as the de facto Big Ten Championship after Nebraska and Penn State finished as conference co-champions at 19-1 (Despite Penn State’s loss coming to Nebraska), let’s take a stroll down memory lane and rank each of the six Nebraska victories during this stretch.
1) Dec. 9, 2016: No. 2 Nebraska wins vs. No. 13 Penn State 3-2 (23-25, 23-25, 26-24, 25-19, 15-6)
After knocking off the Nittany Lions twice during the regular season, the two teams ran into each other once again in the regional semifinals at the Devaney Center. It’s tough to beat a good team three times in a row, and the Huskers found that out the hard way as they fell into a 0-2 hole at the intermission.
Nebraska was on the brink of elimination, facing a pair of match-points at 24-22 Penn State. However, the Huskers dug deep and reeled off four straight to take the set and extend the match.
Getting over that hump was all Nebraska needed as the Huskers outscored Penn State 40-25 the rest of the way including 15-6 in the decisive fifth set. The win sent the Huskers on to the regional final, where Nebraska swept Washington to advance to its second straight Final Four.
This earns the top spot because it is the most incredible match I’ve covered in my three years with Hail Varsity.
2) Oct. 2, 2015: No. 4 Nebraska wins vs. No. 1 Penn State 3-2 (12-25, 24-26, 25-15, 25-20, 15-11)
The second match on the list is the one that started the streak. Just like my No. 1 match, the Huskers fell behind 0-2 at the break, only this time it wasn’t in the friendly confines of the Devaney Center, and it was against a better Penn State team as well.
The Nittany Lions came in ranked No. 1 in the country and rolled over the Huskers in the first set, then survived a battle in the second.
However, a different Nebraska team came back out of the locker room and dominated in the third set, then won the second comfortably. Nebraska fell behind 5-1 in the fifth set but rallied to outscore the Nittany Lions 14-6.
Mikaela Foecke, then a true freshman, had her coming out party with 22 kills to lead the way for the Huskers. Nebraska snapped Penn State’s 33-match winning streak and secured just its second win ever (to that point) at Penn State.
3) Sept. 22, 2017: No. 14 Nebraska wins at No. 2 Penn State 3-0 (26-24, 25-19, 25-20)
Next up is the most recent clash. You can read the full recap here.
I’ll let Cook himself explain its significance.
“Going into that Penn State, we had lost to Northern Iowa the week before,” Cook said. “So I'm like, the wheels have come off. I hope we can even survive the Big Ten and get to the NCAA Tournament.
"But, like many years and sometimes after a loss, you learn a lot. And I think our team really learned a lot from that weekend, and we were able to go into Penn State and play great. So that was a great bounce back by our team. And I think the fact that when we did that, it just reaffirmed everything we've been telling them. We have a chance to be a good team, and we can do this. We thought we could go in there and compete really well with Penn State, and of course, when we won, it just helped boost our confidence …
"At some point during the season you have to have some significant wins to validate everything you've been working on. Obviously for this team that was a huge significant win, maybe as big as you can get in the Big Ten Conference to validate everything we've been training and working on. This is working for us.”
It proved to be Penn State’s only loss all season, and after the first set it wasn’t all that close.
4) Nov. 28, 2015: No. 5 Nebraska wins vs. No. 7 Penn State 3-0 (25-18, 25-18, 25-22)
Penn State never truly threatened Nebraska at the Devaney Center as the Huskers held the Nittany Lions to their lowest hitting percentage of the season to cap a 26-win regular season, the highest total to that point since 2010. The Huskers out-blocked the physical Nittany Lions 12-6 (the most times Penn State had been blocked in a three-set match all season). Foecke followed up her 22-kill match with 11 more kills on .360 hitting, setting the stage for her Most Outstanding Player performance in the Final Four as Nebraska went on to with the National Championship.
The match also served as senior night for a group of four women and Nebraska was able to send them out with a huge victory.
5) Nov. 4, 2016: No. 1 Nebraska wins 3-2 at No. 11 Penn State (22-25, 25-17, 25-23, 23-25, 15-11)
This one was a back-and-forth affair as the Huskers and Nittany Lions traded off wins to set up a decisive fifth set. The teams traded points early on, but a 6-0 Nebraska run put the Huskers up 9-3 and Nebraska finished it off from there.
Foecke tied Andie Malloy for team-high honors with 19 kills, continuing her outstanding career against the Nittany Lions. Libero Justine Wong-Orantes finished with 23 digs to break the career digs record at Nebraska.
6) Nov. 16, 2016: No. 1 Nebraska wins 3-0 vs. No. 15 Penn State (25-17, 25-14, 25-22)
Nebraska put forth one of its best defensive efforts in recent memory in the second set, holding the high-powered Nittany Lions to -.065 hitting. The win (along with two more at Iowa and against Michigan) gave the Huskers the cushion they needed to lose at Minnesota in the penultimate match of the regular season yet still win its first Big Ten title since 2011, Nebraska’s first year in the conference.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.