Last Friday myself and my much better half ventured from Cincinnati to Penn State University for an NCAA Championship first round volleyball match between the three-time defending national champions Nittany Lions and the Purple Eagles from Niagara University of New York. Round trip the drive is about 15 hours from Cincinnati to watch a match that lasts about an hour and a half. My daughter is my vested interest, she is a proud junior Purple Eagle volleyball player. There are many proud Purple Eagles, even more now.
Here is a little background. Two years ago the Niagara volleyball team was the youngest NCAA Division 1 team of any NCAA sport. Their average age as a team was just over 18 years. The team struggled going 6-23 on the season in a small D1 conference. Despite the struggle, every player on the roster returned, the team had developed a family atmosphere under Head Coach Susan Clements and Assistant Coach Kara Hellman. The Eagles went 23-8 last year. It was the biggest turn-around by any NCAA volleyball team. Still very young, the Eagles won the MAAC Championship and headed to the NCAA tournament for the first time in Niagara's history. They were ousted quickly in the first round by a very strong Michigan team. The match was brief and uneventful. The Eagles were determined to return to the NCAA tournament.
This year the Purple Eagles won the MAAC conference with a 17-1 record, won the MAAC championship, and advanced to the NCAA tournament. Their draw was three time defending national champion Penn State! Penn State's front line goes 6'5", 6'4", and 6'3". That's height in feet and inches. The Eagles measure in at 6'1", 6'0, and about 5'10". While Niagara has an enrollment of about 3700, Penn State sees about 44,000 kids enroll. Most thought the match was destined to be a short affair.
One of goals of the Purple Eagles was simple-keep a game in the match close enough to make Penn State call a timeout. That means you have to play with Penn State, point for point, eventually making them nervous enough to call a timeout. It happened in the second game of the 3 game sweep. The score was close early on. Purple Eagle fans snapped pictures of the scoreboard with Niagara leading 4-2 and 8-6. It looked, however, as though Penn State was going to pull away when the score went to 18-14 in favor of the Nittany Lions. The Purple Eagles scored 4 straight and then it happened. Legendary Penn State coach Russ Rose, clipboard in hand, motioned to the ref for a timeout. From 6-23 two years earlier in a small D1 conference to a Penn State timeout in the NCAA tournament. Purple Eagle fans danced, laughed, slapped hands and enjoyed a timeout like they had never before.
The Purple Eagle women athletes had accomplished one more goal. In terms of volleyball and programs and development and maturity and effort this was a big one, a very big one. Somehow, someway, this group mustered enough grit and determination, while knowing the mismatch that exisited, to concentrate on and succeed at the task at hand. That's hard to do. I have seen many individual athletes develop over time but watching an entire team develop is an absolute thrill.
Penn State went on to win the game and eventually the match. I saw the Penn State players go their seperate ways as they left the arena. The Purple Eagles went to dinner, together.