This weekend's NCAA Volleyball Championships was a homecoming for Edmond native and Penn State setter Micha Hancock. And what a homecoming it was.
Hancock ended her storied career with one last terrific performance, leading the Nittany Lions to their record seventh national championship with a sweep (25-21, 26-24, 25-14) over BYU.
With Chesapeake Energy Arena roaring every time her name was mentioned, Hancock directed the Penn State offense with an efficiency that has come to define her career.
“What's hitting me now is I'm not coming back to play with my girls,” Hancock said. “I'm going to miss the Penn State family. It's weird to be an alum, but it's a great way to end my career here.”
While the sport has grown considerably over the years in Oklahoma, not everyone in the crowd that filled The Peake was there because of a love of the game. Plenty of locals where there to see Hancock, the hometown kid who has become the best player in the country at one of the best programs in volleyball history.
“Micha's had a lot of great things happen at Penn State,” Nittany Lions coach Russ Rose said. “I'm sure I was especially hard on her and her development.
“We had a good love/hate relationship and I think she achieved what she wanted to achieve when she came to Penn State.”
Hancock, who was named AVCA Player of the Year this weekend as well, made the All-Tournament team along with teammates Megan Courtney and Ali Frantti. Alexa Gray and Jennifer Hamson made the team for BYU, while Brittany Howard of Stanford and Chiaka Ogbogu of Texas rounded out the team. Courtney was named Most Outstanding Player after totaling 34 kills, 30 digs and 10 blocks over the two-match stretch in OKC.
Meanwhile, it was a disappointing finish to an amazing run for the Cougars. No one outside the Cougars' locker room and circle of fans thought BYU had a chance to be in Oklahoma City, much less face the Nittany Lions with a national championship on the line. So while the loss stung — as they are apt to do — there was little for BYU to hang their heads about.
“This is an unbelievable legacy we have created this year and it gives us something to build on,” BYU middle blocker Amy Boswell said. “It stings for sure, but I try to think about what an amazing year it has been and I would not want to fight with anyone else but these girls.”
After the game, BYU coach Shawn Olmstead struggled to keep his voice from cracking as he described the run he and his team had just finished.
“The deal is, these kids didn't fail,” Olmstead said. “They didn't lose. They competed and they're going to grow from this experience and they're going to be better because of it.”
BYU is the best blocking team in the country for a reason—the lineup is stacked with tall bodies and it's a very important part of the Cougars' offense.
Coming into the match, the goal for Penn State was to avoid hitting into the block of the 6-foot-7 Hamson. They achieved that with startling efficiency, as Hancock consistently set the right side of the offense to allow her hitters better opportunities at kills.
“I tried to put some good balls up and so we could attack their right back, move the ball around a little bit because they've got No. 19, a pretty big girl,” Hancock said. “We wanted to try to limit the balls over there and execute our game plan and we did a good job of that.”
In the first set, the Nittany Lions did a terrific job avoiding the block and making the Cougars beat them with their offense. BYU managed just two blocks in the set but still grabbed early 3-0 and 6-3 leads. Once Penn State took a 7-6 lead, the Nittany Lions never gave it back, leading the set by as many as five en route to a 25-21 win.
The Cougars inability to consistently defend the Penn State attack was the difference in the game. The Nittany Lions neutralized the Cougars' size by swinging high, something even someone like Hamson was unable to stop.
“They're tall, physical girls and they jump really high and swing high,” Boswell said. “That makes it hard, no matter if you put 6'4, 6'7 or 6'2 up there. They're going to swing high off your hands and that makes it difficult.
“I thought our block was in good spots but I think they just went high off the hands, which is a great strategy.”
In the second set, the Cougars got their act together and used a 7-1 run to take a 13-8 lead. The block was key during the run, as Boswell put down two solo blocks on her own during the run.
But Penn State chipped away at the lead, finally knotting the score at 20 apiece. Up 23-22, a Hamson error tied the score again and two points later, her service error with the score at 24-all gave the Nittany Lions a set point opportunity which they capitalized on.
“There was a good vibe in the locker room in between sets,” Olmstead said. “Especially feeling like we were right there. I think we served for one set point, maybe.”
The third set quickly became a coronation ceremony for the Nittany Lions, as BYU, frustrated and a bit overmatched, unraveled. The Cougars committed 13 total errors in the final set, nine of those attack errors.
Penn State took advantage, rolling off a 12-3 run to take a commanding 19-8 lead, leaving the trophy ceremony as last thing to take care of on their season checklist.
There will be a time and place to measure the impact Hancock and her success has had on volleyball in her home state, but for now, it's time to sit back and admire the legacy of a career that ended Saturday night with a second straight national championship.
“I've poured my heart and soul into this team,” Hancock said. “I hope I've left my mark there. And it's just going to be hard to finally leave and cut the cord.”