Penn State volleyball’s reign could be at its end

By Emily Kaplan

The cracks of Penn State’s dynasty were starting to show — perhaps even before this season began.

A 102-match winning streak and three consecutive national championships were irrelevant for the Nittany Lions’ women’s volleyball team in its hope to repeat in 2010.

This season, Penn State features a considerably different roster. New faces, new roles, new expectations — and new burdens.

“We’re a different team this year,” coach Russ Rose told reporters at media day in August. “Each year is different.”

Now, it’s seven weeks into the season and the Lions (13-4, 3-3 Big Ten) have lost four matches over the past four weeks. The seven-time defending conference champions are currently in sixth place in the Big Ten standings. And they’re not the No. 1 ranked in the country for the first time since Oct. 22, 2007.

The cracks are growing deeper, and some are beginning to question: Is this the end of the Penn State juggernaut and its reign over collegiate women’s volleyball?

“I would say you could predict the end of a dynasty, yeah,” said Buster Olney, ESPN baseball analyst and author of The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty. “When you see the players that were so important leave, it’s like a colony of ants. They all had their specific roles in the clubhouse, and when they leave, the culture is different. And the hardest thing to deal with is the pressure to try to repeat.”

Penn State entered the 2010 season without its core.

Alisha Glass and Megan Hodge — veteran locker room presences who graduated last spring as a part of the winningest class in school history — moved on, and nine freshmen were added to the Lions’ roster.

Olney said he came up with the thesis for his book, which chronicles the decline of the New York Yankees’ dominance over Major League Baseball from 1996-2001, in the summer of 2002. When Olney saw players such as Paul O’Neill, Chuck Knoblauch, Scott Brosius and Tino Martinez — who he described as “the core for that incredible leadership culture” — leave, he knew things would change.

Olney said the Yankees kept making the playoffs after that, but the feeling wasn’t the same.

It was a different team, he said.

“I think the change in personnel became a defining characteristic of their decline,” Olney said. “When you get that label of ‘dynasty’ the players go from excited about winning a game to the expectations that, if they lose, you’re losers. The Yankees had to deal with that and I’m sure the Penn State volleyball players do, too.”

The Lions have stumbled of late, tumbling to a No. 9 national ranking — their lowest since 2003.

However, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Dave Anderson, who has been a sports columnist at the New York Times since 1971, said a few regular season blunders might not mean it would be the end of a dynasty.

Anderson said dynasties are measured in championships. He said when a reign of dominance occurs, there’s always a common thread.

“The end of a dynasty comes if all the good players or coaches who were a part of that get old, retire or are not there anymore,” Anderson said. “Especially the coach. Usually when a team is in the midst of a dynasty range, they have the same coach. Players only last so long.”

Anderson pointed to the Yankees’ dynasty of 1947-62, when New York won 10 World Series championships in 16 seasons as a prime example. He said when General Manager George Weiss retired in 1960, the team’s philosophy changed.

And not soon after, the Yankees’ run ended.

Rose has coached the Penn State women’s volleyball team for the last 32 seasons, and last year amassed 1,000 wins.

“These things can be revitalized as long as the people who are still doing the recruiting and established the program are still there,” said Filip Bondy, a longtime sports columnist for The New York Daily News.

“They will still be a magnet school for talent and interest. Once the coach leaves, the program can completely fall apart.”

Bondy said the perfect illustration of that is the Tennessee and Connecticut women’s basketball programs, which have combined to win 12 of the last 16 NCAA titles.

The success has been a result of sound coaching, Bondy said. Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma are two of the winningest coaches in the history of the sport, and together have put in 60 years at their respective institutions.

“Summitt and Auriemma might have an off year or two, but as long as those coaches are there, their programs will keep winning,” Bondy said. “Rock solid teams fall apart when coaches leave.”

That’s why Karch Kiraly isn’t worried about the Penn State women’s volleyball team. In fact, Kiraly — an ESPN volleyball analyst and current assistant coach for the U.S. women’s national team — feels strongly the Lions will “claw back up.”

“Some claim Penn State lost a few games, and it’s the end of dominance,” Kiraly said. “I think the more important thing to focus on is what an amazing accomplishment it was for coach Russ Rose to put together the best team in the history of college volleyball. That should be appreciated for what it is.”

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