STANFORD, Calif. - Rarely do the top-ranked teams in the country have an early-season showdown, but that’s the case Friday night at Maples Pavilion, when the No. 2 Stanford women’s volleyball team hosts No. 1 Penn State in what has developed into a riveting rivalry.
Each school owns six national championships, the Nittany Lions pulling even last year after edging Stanford in the Lexington Regional after an epic five-set match. Both coaches – John Dunning of Stanford and Russ Rose of Penn State -- are AVCA Hall of Famers and boast winning percentages of more than .800.
Neither likes losing.
“Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Stanford had a lot of success and Penn State was building on the East Coast,” said Dunning, now in his 29th season of coaching and 14th on The Farm. “And they didn’t venture out very much. Then in the ’90s, Penn State and Stanford had some great matches in the Final Four, and I think that kind of ignited it.”
The Cardinal claimed NCAA titles in 1992, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2004. Rose, now in his 36th year of coaching, has led Penn State to crowns in 1999, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013. The Nittany Lions lead the overall series, 8-7.
“I just like for my team to play Russ’s team,” Dunning said. “Clearly, there is mutual respect. They’re always tough; it doesn’t matter who they have on their team.”
There have been many memorable matches. In 1997, the Cardinal prevailed in a five-set thriller. After losing the first two sets, Penn State won the next two, capped by a 44-minute fourth set that featured 58 sideouts. Stanford won the deciding set, 15-9.
In 1999, the schools met in the NCAA title match in Honolulu, Hawaii, with the Nittany Lions capturing their first championship. The NCAA title was also on the line in 2007 in Sacramento, where Stanford rallied from two-sets down to force a fifth set. Penn State regrouped for a 15-8 win.
Last year’s see-saw regional in Kentucky saw the Nittany Lions snap Stanford’s 12-match winning streak, 22-25, 25-22, 28-26, 18-25 and 15-11.
“We played a very courageous match and had a chance to win,” said Dunning. “We had about a three-minute span in Game 5 when we gave the lead up and it was hard to fight back. They went on to win and I think we had a great chance to win the Final Four, too.”
Junior setter Madi Bugg had 54 assists, 12 digs and five blocks.
“If we were going to lose, that’s how I would want to lose,” she said. “It’s just fuel for the fire and more reason to want to beat Penn State. It was high intensity the whole time and we know it’s going to be the same way this time.”
Junior outside hitter Jordan Burgess contributed 17 kills.
“Every single year that we have played Penn State, we know they’re going to come fired up and play their very best,’’ said Burgess. “So you know it’s going to be not only a fight but really good volleyball at the same time. It’s a cool experience to be a part of.”
Stanford enters Friday’s match 2-0, having won road matches at Iowa State and then-No. 7 Nebraska. Penn State is 3-0, but hasn’t played a ranked opponent. Not that Dunning is taking them lightly.
“No. 1, they believe in themselves,” he said. “They graduated a bunch of people who were very important to last year’s team and reloaded with a bunch of good people. You have to convince them somewhere along the line they shouldn’t believe if you’re going to get any chinks in the armor. The cornerstone of their foundation is being competitive. Teams that really compete … they’re going to look through the net at you and you better be able to look back.”
Added Bugg, “Penn State works really hard on defense. They’re a scrappy team and balls do not hit the floor without four people sprinting after them.”
Their outside hitters often take long approaches to the net and swing their hands high.
“You know every ball is going to have someone wailing on it,” said Burgess, a human biology major who plans to become a doctor and is interested in neuro science.
While Stanford isn’t afraid to wail back, Bugg said there is a distinct contrast in styles.
“I think we are a rhythm team,” she said. “A tempo type of offense. We both do the same things but we’re better at different things.”
Bugg, who is majoring in political science but thinks she is destined to become a coach, knows the Nittany Lions have a young team but expects a fearless effort.
“Freshmen play on pure adrenaline and that is hard to combat,” said Bugg.
With two seniors and five juniors on his squad, Dunning has experience, talent and leadership. He insisted revenge will not be a factor Friday night.
“I don’t think our team plays to get back at someone,” said Dunning. “When you know they’re good, you respect them. They’re going to make us play well. And if we want to win, we have to play better.”
Not that he hasn’t reflected about last year’s loss.
“Did that motivate me, our staff and our team in particular to be better in the moment?” he said. “Absolutely no question.”
Dunning hasn’t shied away from talking to his players about the ultimate prize: a seventh national title.
“I believe that all of the teams here at Stanford have that underlying feeling,” Dunning said. “People wouldn’t come here if they weren’t striving to be the best.”
In fact, his players feed off it and noted their coach seems more driven than ever.
“We normally go on fun trips during the preseason to do fun team-bonding things,” said Bugg. “This year, we’re nixing it and getting down to business.”
Playing Penn State will be a barometer and a potential springboard for the season.
“We are no longer a young team,” said Bugg. “We know what it takes and where we should be. It’s all about growing and figuring out what we can get better at and then going to practice the next day and doing it. This match will also be a chance for us to work on what we’ve been doing in pressure situations and get used to playing in front of a lot of people.”
Dunning recognizes this team has big potential and he wants his players to make the most of it.
“They are fun-loving, tight-knit and good at what they do,” he said. “They are competitive and they want to keep getting better. I believe this team can stay motivated the whole way through, no matter what happens.”
And they can’t wait to walk out on the newly-refurbished floor at Maples Pavilion on Friday night to see where they stack up.
“Tons of people we know are coming to see us play this match,” said Burgress. “It will just be a blast for everyone.”