There’s just no stopping Penn State volleyball

Heading into its match at No. 1 Penn State last Friday, No. 5 Illinois knew that it was a long shot to break the nation’s longest volleyball winning streak.

So it wasn’t much of a surprise when the Illini became another victim of the Nittany Lions, who won in three sets for their 91st straight win. The next day, the Nittany Lions stretched the streak to 92 by defeating Northwestern.

The victory tied Penn State with the North Carolina women’s soccer team (1990-1994) for the longest NCAA consecutive team “single score” winning streak. According to dignittanyvolleyball.com, that is different than “aggregate score” team competitions with individual competitors, such as golf, tennis and wrestling. The overall record for consecutive wins of any kind is held by the Miami (Fla.) men’s tennis team, which won 137 straight matches from 1957-1964.

Penn State head coach Russ Rose stresses that the streak isn’t from just one volleyball team.

“It’s three streaks, there was a 2007 streak and then we had a 2008 streak, and we graduated three other players and we’re still moving along with a 2009 streak,” Rose said. “Three separate feats. Three separate teams. Three separate groups of players, totally different staff members. Everything is different on all of those teams and it just so happens that we have been winning our matches.”

Despite the Nittany Lions (28-0) being No. 1 every week this season, Rose still gets nervous.

The major challenge for Penn State this season was finding a way to replace graduated outside hitter Nicole Fawcett and middle blocker Christa Harmotto, both first-team All-Americans who now play for the U.S. National Team.

This year’s roster includes four All Americans — senior setter Alisha Glass, senior outside hitter Megan Hodge, junior right-side hitter Blair Brown and junior middle blocker Arielle Wilson.

Freshman outside hitter Darcy Dorton has broken into her role on the team, being named Big Ten Freshman of the Week five times this season.

“The veteran leadership of Alisha Glass and Megan Hodge has been able to keep us near the top of the college game,” Rose said. “I’m not sure we’re the top team in the country. Just because you’re ranked No. 1 doesn’t mean we are No. 1. We have lost a few sets this season and that would not have happened last year.”

Penn State leads the Big Ten across the board in hitting percentage, assists, kills and blocks. If Penn State wins this weekend, it will secure its spot as No. 1 in the Big Ten for the seventh year in a row.

One of the Nittany Lions’ advantages in the Big Ten is their height, as they have nine players at least six feet tall. That’s something that isn’t lost on the Illinois volleyball team.

“It can be scary as a freshman, it’s kind of intimidating, it’s just like, ‘Wow, oh my gosh this team is so much bigger then us,’” Illini junior Hillary Haen said. “Now being a junior and having played them several times, you just know what to expect and you know that they are normal, too.”

Haen thinks it takes a team to play their best game in order to beat the Nittany Lions.

“I think you have to be relentless in your attack, you have to be aggressive — blocking aggressively, hitting aggressively. You have to be ready to get the rallies,” Haen said. “I mean, most teams who have really good hitters don’t have really good defense. That’s something that is definitely another one of their strong suits. They are incredible at defense and offense, so you have to be ready for a very long battle.”

Ilinois has lost to Penn State twice this season, and head coach Kevin Hambly said in neither of those matches did the Illini have their greatest performance.

“Penn State is a huge challenge. I thought we continued to fight throughout that match, we just didn’t perform as well as we would have liked to,” Hambly said. “We certainly didn’t play our best match, and it definitely would have taken that to beat them, but hopefully we’ll get another chance and then we’ll play our best match. That’s what it will take to beat Penn State.”