By Jen Armson-Dyer
It’s been almost three years. One thousand eighty days since the Penn State women’s volleyball team dropped a marathon two hour and 20 minute five-game heartbreaker to Stanford in a packed gym in New Haven, Conn. It was that day, Sept. 15, 2007, that three Nittany Lion players, Alyssa D’Errico, Arielle Wilson and Blair Brown, felt what it was like to lose a collegiate match. And they haven’t had that feeling since.
Sure they’ve had help along the way, a sort of perfect aligning of the volleyball stars that has produced multiple AVCA All-Americans, three consecutive Big Ten and NCAA National Championships and a record-breaking streak of 105 straight match wins. That’s the story that gets the buzz going. It’s what makes SportsCenter. It’s what makes non-volleyball fans sit up and take notice, when the team is mentioned in the same breath as John Wooden’s UCLA men’s basketball teams that now have a shorter streak than Russ Rose’s team.
But what’s the story behind the story? At some point this team will lose. With the loss of three key starters and the arrival of nine new freshmen to campus, there’s a pretty good chance that it will be this season, perhaps even this preseason as the Nittany Lions will travel to Gainesville to face a Florida team that just knocked off Nebraska. How will this team handle losing, especially in a program that hasn’t done so in so long. That’s the real question.
The answer lies behind the blue metal double doors at the far end of Rec Hall leading to the team’s practice facility, South Gym. It’s a windowless hot box of a gym with four courts and not much else. Not much else besides blood, sweat, tears and tradition. There are no banners on the walls. There are no trophies, no plaques. The tradition is carried on within the people in South Gym and it is the main focus of those three seniors, the ones who felt what it was like to lose at Penn State. Those three seniors have lost two matches their entire career. Some teams lose two matches in a day. How will they respond when the winning streak ends, especially as the leaders of such a young team? By looking towards the next match and learning from their mistakes.
“You never want to be put in a position to lose a game, and once you do, you never want to go back,” said Wilson. “We never want to feel that again.”
“You try not to pay attention to everything outside,” added Brown. “We’re just really concentrating on pushing through the season and getting better the whole year to be the best at the end.”
“Everything outside” would also include The Streak. To the members of the Penn State volleyball program, they don’t even know what number the win streak stands at.
“[The win streak] doesn’t matter to me at all,” laughed Brown.
To the members of the staff and team, The Streak is in fact four different win streaks that just happen to be in consecutive seasons. It began in 2007 after that fateful loss to Stanford, 26 straight wins that culminated in the program’s second NCAA title as the Nittany Lions returned the favor to the Cardinal with a five-game win for the trophy. The Streak reached new levels in 2008 with arguably one of the best teams in women’s collegiate volleyball history that produced a record six AVCA All-Americans (Brown and Wilson among them), and not only went undefeated in matches (38-0) but lost only two individual games all season. With the graduation of some key players, the 2009 NCAA title wasn’t a sure thing for many prognosticators but nonetheless Penn State proved everyone wrong and once more ran the table, again going 38-0 for an unprecedented third consecutive NCAA title. So far in 2010, the Nittany Lions are off to a 3-0 start after sweeping all three opponents opening weekend.
If you’re keeping track, that’s a collegiate career record of 113-2 for Brown, Wilson and D’Errico, who have all been key players since the beginning.
So why doesn’t The Streak matter? Because wins and losses, while nice, aren’t the end-all-be-all. It’s how you play the game. Teams can play bad and win, yet they can also play well and lose. At a successful program like Penn State, it’s about how you represent yourself and the team, a sentiment these three seniors have a strong grasp on.
“My mindset is that I just play hard every game, no matter who the opponent is,” said Wilson.
“We need to uphold the tradition and play our game, win or lose. We have to play with our heads held high and be Penn State proud.”
With their mix of personalities and leadership styles, Brown, D’Errico and Wilson are working hard on and off the court to let the nine newcomers, several of whom are now starters, know what it means to be Penn State proud.
“Whether it’s helping the new players with classes or on the court during drills or water breaks, we’re just there for them,” said D’Errico. “Our main role is how well we’re bringing the other people along rather than how much we’re going to be in the spotlight, because the entire team has to be good for us to win.”
This collective effort of passing down the tradition is something that Rose also speaks of, and he knows that a loss, while not something he’d prefer or probably admit to, isn’t the end of the world.
“It’s a program, it’s a culture. You hate it when you lose your good players and you’re a little apprehensive about youth, but that’s the only way people get experience. You have to go through the tough times to really be able to embrace the excitement of the good times. If this senior class experiences more of the good times, then they’re lucky. If they had the good times and then the tough times, they still had it pretty good.”
While all of the wins, trophies and accolades may be what this era of Penn State volleyball is remembered for, D’Errico sums up her wishes for the 2010 campaign.
“I would love to win my last match and we’re going to work hard every day to win another national championship, but if we leave behind what the program is supposed to be like for the freshmen and they can carry on the tradition, to me that’s just as great of an accomplishment.”
And that tradition is a streak that will live on for years to come if these seniors have anything to say about it.