When you soar above the national competition, it’s hard to believe you can also fly under the national radar.
The Penn State women’s volleyball team, however, has seemingly accomplished that unlikely feat.
The Nittany Lions are just two wins away from their record-breaking eighth NCAA Division I national championship — all achieved since 1999 and all under the direction of legendary head coach Russ Rose.
In other sports, such a remarkable achievement of sustained excellence would garner headlines across the nation. Major media outlets would be all over the story.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case with volleyball, which is considered a niche sport in many regions of the country.
That’s certainly not the case here in York County. In these parts, volleyball is a pretty big deal. The overwhelming success of our high school boys' and girls' teams on the state level has been well chronicled.
Our volleyball athletes have gone on to excel at major colleges across the country, including Penn State.
Under any measurement, volleyball is undoubtedly the York-Adams League’s single most successful sport.
Not surprisingly, this has become volleyball country.
That’s why, around here, PSU’s run toward history is deserving of more than a little recognition and will garner more than a little interest.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that York County, which is home to a PSU branch campus, is packed with Penn State graduates and fans.
The top-ranked Lions (33-1) have reached the NCAA semifinals for the 13th time in program history and for the first time since 2014.
They would have to be considered the favorites to win the 2017 national championship, which would break a tie with Stanford for most national titles won by a single program. Both PSU and Stanford have earned seven national crowns.
Facing a nemesis: PSU’s road to an eighth title, however, will not be easy. Standing in the Lions’ way is a team that has been a recent nemesis — the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
No. 5 Nebraska (30-4) handed the Lions their only loss this season, a 3-0 sweep at Penn State on Sept. 22. The two teams ended up sharing the Big Ten championship.
Nebraska also ended PSU’s 2016 season with a 3-2 regional semifinal triumph over the Lions.
The Cornhuskers have a strong women’s volleyball tradition, too, having captured four national titles, with their most recent coming in 2015.
So, the semifinal matchup, set for 7 p.m. Thursday at Kansas City’s Sprint Center, is truly a showdown of women’s volleyball titans. Fortunately for area volleyball fans, the match will be televised live by ESPN. So will the other semifinal at 9 p.m. between No. 3 Stanford (30-3) and No. 2 Florida (29-1). Stanford is the defending national champion. PSU, however, beat Stanford twice very early in the season, 3-1 and 3-2.
The national championship match, scheduled for 9 p.m. Saturday in Kansas City, will be televised live on ESPN2.
Lee leads Lions: Simone Lee, a dynamic 6-foot, 1-inch outside hitter, leads the Lions. She was recently named the American Volleyball Coaches Association Northeast Region Player of the Year.
Lee, however, will get plenty of help from other All-Northeast selections Haleigh Washington, Ali Frantti, Heidi Thelen and Kendall White.
The only player in that group who is not a senior is White, so this PSU group is experienced, and hungry for the program’s first national title since 2014.
You can be sure that lots of folks in York County, where volleyball is king and where PSU fans are plentiful, will be watching intently.
Around here, the Lions' women's volleyball team most definitely won’t fly under the radar.
Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.