Happy Valley is buzzing with excitement. Students have moved back onto campus, classes are getting started, and football, along with all of its excitement and activities, is just around the corner. But the fall semester brings more than textbooks and tailgates for Nittany Lion faithful. One of the country's most dominant dynasties is looking to add yet another chapter to their amazing history.
The Penn State women's volleyball team begins a "drive for five" this weekend, having captured an incredible four straight NCAA championships. No team in college volleyball history has enjoyed a title run like that. So, in spite of having just two seniors on the roster, the Lions have been tabbed the preseason top-ranked team as well as the Big Ten Coaches' pick to win the conference yet again.
Certainly fan expectations are high as well: Rec Hall crowds have become accustomed to success. Penn State has racked up 94 straight match wins on its home court, a streak that will surely be tested immediately when they open the season this weekend. Hosting the ACVA Showcase Friday and Saturday, Penn State will meet Oregon and second-ranked USC, a great litmus test to open the campaign.
While the Nittany Lions have a small core of starters returning, including some preseason award winners, the 2011 squad is still the youngest Penn State has put on the court in years. Of the 17 players on the roster, 13 are either freshmen or sophomores. They will be expected to learn fast, and learn under fire. The Lions may have history on their side, but they also have a bullseye on their back.
Penn State's unprecedented success has made the program capable of recruiting the best high school talent the country has to offer, so there is no question that the Lions will have skills. But perhaps even more important than fundamental ability, this squad has made winning the standard. Victory has become a habit for the Penn State program; the senior class has known nothing but national championships throughout their careers.
And maybe the greatest weapon in Happy Valley is the bench boss himself. Russ Rose has become legendary among the nation's volleyball coaches, building a program that belongs among some of the great dynasties in the history of sport. Penn State has become to women's volleyball what the Yankees are to baseball, the Steelers are to football, and the Lakers are to basketball. And this year may be among the greatest challenges of his career. A dynasty in re-building mode, not knowing which player may become the next superstar, and what challenges and successes lie ahead.
If Penn State returns to the NCAA Final Four, and even another national title, it may not be a big surprise, but it also may be its greatest accomplishment, and until then, it'll sure be fun to watch.
Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at Kellie@BedfordCountyChamber.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.