The Penn State women's volleyball team finished 2011 in second place in the Big Ten, having been ranked among the top ten nationally all season long. For most teams, that would be considered a very successful campaign.
But for the Nittany Lions, it was the first time since 2007 that they had not hoisted the national championship trophy to finish their season.
It was a gentle reminder that you really can't win them all, even after the program had spent four years all but dispelling that reality. It was a reminder to fans of just how truly special the success of this program really is, and that the string of national titles is the envy of the women's volleyball nation, and not something to take for granted.
Coach Russ Rose has repeatedly said every year and every squad is different; even the greatest programs in the nation need to rebuild every once in a while. Last season's Penn State team was made up of predominantly underclassmen, and all three of PSU's all-Big Ten honorees were mere sophomores. Six starters and 13 letterwinners returned for the 2012 season, with only two seniors on the roster, determined to return the program to national prominence and dominance.
With a year's worth of experience, the most successful head coach in college volleyball history and the desire to live up to the legacy of the Penn State program, these Nittany Lions have put together a 29-2 overall record, captured their 15th Big Ten championship and regained their No. 1 national ranking. The top seed in the NCAA tournament, PSU will host Binghamton on Friday to open the national bracket at Rec Hall.
This year, it's not just players or team dynamics that are unique to the championship quest. The university, its student-athletes, fans and community continue the healing process in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. When the NCAA levied its sanctions against the football program and university, Rose said this in a written statement:
"Penn State women's volleyball will continue to represent our world-class university in the fashion it has for decades. We will compete for championships, strive for excellence in the classroom, and develop future leaders who care deeply about our university and community."
Like all of the Nittany Lion sports programs, the goal now is to do more than win. Their pursuit of excellence takes on an added meaning as Penn State works to redefine its mission and recapture the respect lost over the last year.
The pain and shame of the Sandusky scandal unfairly impacted unrelated Penn State sports. A strong Nittany Lion performance in NCAA women's volleyball would help restore some of the roar to at least one program, and give the Penn State community renewed reason to cheer.
Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at email@example.com. Her column appears on Tuesdays.