TAMPA, Fla. – Texas played the entire season with a chip on its shoulder after blowing a 2-0 lead to Stanford in last year’s semifinals.
But in a bittersweet and ironic end, their historic 2009 season ended exactly how it did in 2008: They lost a 2-0 lead and fell to No. 1 Penn State, 3-2 (25-22, 25-20, 23-25, 21-25, 13-15).
“I hadn’t thought of that until you mentioned it,” senior setter Ashley Engle joked through damp eyes after the game.
The Longhorns fought hard, and the title match was the closest decision in 25 years when the 1984 championship was also decided 15-13 in the final set. Both teams finished dead even at 107 points apiece, the first time that happened in the title match history. But coming close wasn’t what head coach Jerritt Elliott had in mind as Penn State won their third straight title and 102nd consecutive match.
“Although both teams fought really hard, Penn State showed why they’ve been great for so many years,” Elliott said.
Texas defied big odds early by winning the first set. For the first several points, the Longhorns looked tense and out of their element. Senior outside hitter Destinee Hooker had some awkward passes and junior hitter Juliann Faucette knocked a couple of balls into the stands. But after Elliott gave his trademark gesture by telling his team to relax, the Longhorns stormed to a scrappy first set victory.
There were 11 tie scores and six total lead changes in the set as the heavyweights went back and forth and the two best defensive teams in the country held each other to under a .200 hitting percentage.
The second set became the Destinee Hooker show.
Texas ran off to a relatively big lead and held it for the remainder of the set, largely due to Hooker’s play. Hooker had 11 kills in the set, and everything that could go right went right for the Longhorns, as they carried a huge 2-0 lead into the locker room at the break.
“We were playing pretty perfect, and we knew we had stung them a bit,” Engle said. “We knew they’d make adjustments and come out on fire, and we just didn’t battle back like we should’ve.”
After the game, Penn State head coach Russ Rose said he simply reminded his team of the last time he was down 2-0, way back in September 2006. Cornerstones of the Nittany Lions’ team, hitter Megan Hodge and setter Alisha Glass were freshmen, playing in Austin against the Texas, of all teams.
“I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but it sounded good at the time and seemed to work,” Rose said. “It’s not really that we regrouped – I just told them to give the crowd a better showing.”
The speech worked.
Penn State came out in the third set with a vengeance. With a 101-game winning streak on the line, the Nittany Lions were determined not to go quietly. Texas went down by four points early in the set and, until a last-minute run, the lead lasted. Texas put together a 6-2 run to pull the match to 24-23, but just two points shy of the national championship, Texas couldn’t pull off the sweep.
And losing the momentum cost them severely.
Just as they did in the third set, Penn State jumped to an early lead in the fourth set. But also mirroring their play, Texas stormed back only to lose in the end. Just as they had in the first set, the defenses took over with both teams hitting well under .200.
The fifth and final set was just as epic as the rest of the match had been. Hooker and Hodge went back and forth, tying the score 10 times, but a lone lead change was enough to win it for Penn State.
“We should’ve known they were No. 1 for a reason,” Faucette said. “It was obviously a battle the whole way through, but losing that fifth set like we did proved it was an all-out brawl.”
Faucette added how Elliott told the team after the game that the feeling burns now, but down the road, they’ll realize how special their season was. But with scarce dry eyes among the Longhorn players, remembering the painfully close loss that was almost a national championship would seem to be the last thing on their minds.
“We put on a great show,” Engle said with her voice cracking. “Everyone gave it their all, and it’s a match I’ll never be able to forget.”