Purdue 3, Penn State 2
It might do Rutgers an injustice to lead with that headline, since they played three sets of very good volleyball against Purdue Friday night, even taking one of them, only the third time they’ve managed as much as that (they’ve never beaten Purdue and have never even taken the Boilers to five sets).
But at one point Saturday evening, the scoreline against Penn State looked like this:
11-25, 22-25, 13-20
I actually stopped watching early in set three after the Boilers dug an 0-3 hole - the football loss was one thing, but this was seemingly non-competitive, with the possible exception of set two. So I closed the tab with BTN+ and went about my business … but I still had Twitter open, and eventually, I saw a post that said 19-20, and turned it back on. I saw probably the best comeback since I’ve been following Purdue volleyball - the only one I know of that’s close was two years ago at Stanford, when the Boilers won 31-33, 12-25, 25-23, 28-26, 15-11.
Penn State had been unbeaten at home: in fact, they’d dropped only two sets all year at home, both to Nebraska. They hadn’t lost at home since September 22 last season, when eventual national champion Nebraska swept them. And Purdue hadn’t beaten them in University Park since the first year of NCAA volleyball, 1982. (Yes, that was a Russ Rose team also.)
The upset vaults Purdue into the discussion for hosting first- and second-round NCAA tournament matches. They probably need another road win to make that happen, but they’re a lot closer now than they were Friday night.
Shavona Cuttino did not play this weekend; Jael Johnson started in her place. Marissa Hornung wore the libero jersey for sets three and four against Rutgers, with Brooke Peters at DS. Erin Williams had a brief cameo, assisting on two blocks.
Against Penn State, Peters was back as libero in sets one and two, with Hornung as libero in sets 3-5. Emma Terwilliger played in two sets, recording a service error and three returns; Joy Chen subbed for Hayley Bush once at setter and had one attack error; Williams made another brief appearance and recorded a block assist.
#15 Purdue 3, #235 Rutgers 1 (25-21, 23-25, 25-23, 25-13)
Talk about inauspicious beginnings: Purdue’s first five serves were error, error, ace, Rutgers point, error. The Boilers eventually opened up a 9-6 lead, thanks to a 4-1 run where the only Rutgers point was challenged by Purdue and confirmed, but the Scarlet Knights scored three straight to tie it. Purdue got two more, then yielded a 2-7 Rutgers run to find themselves down 13-16. A timeout settled things down briefly, but after a Mohler kill, Rutgers responded with a Sahbria McLetchie kill … and then responded bizarrely, as McLetchie reached under the net to shove Bush away, for reasons nobody knows. McLetchie had slammed the ball down on the court after Mohler’s kill, which is unusual enough (I’ve seen players clear the ball with a hand, but always carefully; this is the first basketball-like gesture I’ve seen), and she was lucky not to get a yellow card, but the arm under the net was caught, and for the first time in seven years, I saw a red card. Now, a straight red in volleyball isn’t a straight red in soccer; it’s more like an orange. Officially, it’s Rude Conduct, so think of it as four types of warnings: verbal, yellow, red, yellow + red. Showing both cards means ejection. But a red card does mean point to opponent and loss of serve if you have it, so instead of serving up 14-17, Purdue served at 15-17. (McLetchie’s a senior, so she’s suffered through a lot of losing, but that kind of reaction … something else must have happened before, on the court or off.)
Anyway, Rutgers actually got the next two to lead 15-19; McLetchie’s next attack was out, and a Rutgers challenge confirmed it. Purdue got an Atkinson kill for 17-19; Rutgers called a timeout and got two more points to lead 17-21. The Boilers then used their last timeout … and went on an 8-0 run to close out the set despite a Rutgers timeout at 19-21, with two Mohler kills and a solo Grace Cleveland block highlighting the run. The Good Gals had escaped set one.
Someone came out for set two on fire … and it wasn’t the Boilers. Rutgers scored 8 of the first 9, including back-to-back aces by Beka Kojadinovic, both credited to TEAM (which means no one tried to return them). With one Purdue timeout burned at 1-7, the Boilers would have to turn things around on their own … and they proceeded to do just that, taking the next six points and burning a Rutgers timeout at 5-8. Purdue would tie it at 10 and lead by as much as four, at 19-15, but Rutgers rallied after a timeout there to tie at 19-19, then lead 20-21. Purdue got a Caitlyn Newton kill to tie at 21, but they would not tie again, and despite Williams coming in and assisting on two blocks, the last to stave off set point and have Peters serve 23-24, the Boilers could not salvage the set, with a McLetchie kill making it 23-25 home team and 1-1 in the match.
Purdue and Rutgers began set three like set one, with both sides getting two- and three-point runs but not really pulling away; in fact, the biggest lead in the set would be 3 by Purdue, and that came late. In a tension-filled sequence, Rutgers used an 0-3 run to lead 14-16; Purdue responded with a Mohler kill and three straight blocks, two by Mohler/Newton and one by Mohler/Bush; then Rutgers called timeout, scored two to tie, and added one after a Purdue timeout to lead 18-19. The Good Gals took three of the next four to lead 21-20; Rutgers would tie one more time, at 21-all, but kills by Newton and Atkinson drew the Scarlet Knights’ last timeout, a Johnson/Cleveland block of Tali Marmen put them in the barn, and after a Jena Otec service error and a Marmen ace, Shondell called a timeout and then Atkinson put the set away. At 25-23, Purdue was fortunate to be up 2-1; Rutgers had played very well in all three sets.
Set four was … not that. Rutgers actually led 1-2, but after a Hornung service error made it 3-3, Purdue scored the next five points and burned a Rutgers timeout. Suddenly, it was 12-5 Boilers, with three of the five Rutgers points coming on unforced Purdue errors. From there, it was mostly a matter of playing out the set, as the Boilers didn’t let Rutgers score on their serve again until 22-12, and even those two points were a Julianna Reisinger service error and a Johnson attack error. An Atkinson kill and two more Purdue blocks ended the match, as Purdue took an easy 25-13 win that by no means fairly represented the match.
The overwhelming fourth set made Purdue’s edge in the box score look bigger, as they led all categories but one: attack (48 kills at .274 to 45 at .136 for Rutgers), assists (46-41), aces (13/+2/??? to 7/+2), and blocks (17-8) went the Boilers’ way, while Rutgers had an edge in digs, 38-44.
There was a three-way tie in kills, with Atkinson, Mohler and Newton all getting 12; Mohler led in attack percentage as usual at .474, while Newton hit .364 and Atkinson hit .323 on just 2 errors, and Cleveland just missed double figures with 9 kills at .129. Bush had a match-high 39 assists and one ace (+1/???), with Atkinson (4/+2/???) matching her career high (set last year, also against Rutgers) to lead the team and Hornung (3/+1/???), Otec (2/even), Reisinger (2/+1/???) and Peters (1/-2/???) all serving at least one ace as well. Cleveland had 3 of the 4 Purdue solo blocks and added 3 assists for a match-high 4.5 total, while Otec recorded a career-high 14 digs to lead the team, as no other Boiler topped 10.
For some odd reason, Rutgers doesn’t list their players’ years in an easy-to-read fashion, showing them only in the “card” version of the roster, which doesn’t show their position - it’s almost like their athletic department doesn’t really know how to do things. Anyway, the Scarlet Knight attack was led by senior OH and VCU transfer Sahbria McLetchie, in her second year at Rutgers, who had a match-high 16 kills at .256; freshman OH Tali Marmen was the only other Scarlet Knight in double figures, and she managed 10 kills but hit just .031. Freshman setter Inna Balyko had 36 of Rutgers’ 41 assists and added 2 aces (+1), with sophomore RS Beka Kojadinovic (2/+1), Marmen (1/even), freshman MB Merle Weidt (1/+1), and junior libero Karysa Swackenberg (1/+1) adding the others. Balyko and junior MB Jasmine Stackhouse each had 1 solo block and 4 assists for 3.0 total, and Swackenberg had a match-high 16 digs as the only Scarlet Knight in double figures.
#15 Purdue 3, #5 Penn State 2 (11-25, 22-25, 25-23, 25-22, 20-18)
University Park is the wrong place for a letdown, and in set one on Saturday, it looked like the Boilers were due for one. They quickly fell behind 1-5, rallied to make it 4-5, and then gave a up 2-9 run to make it 6-14. Williams came in for Johnson, a Newton kill stopped the Penn State run, and after a Bryanna Weiskircher kill, Purdue scored three more to make it 10-15 … but their next point made it 11-23, stopping an 0-8 PSU run, and set one was done - kills from Nia Reed and Taylor Leath put the set in the books, and at 11-25, things were looking grim for our heroes.
Things started to clear up temporarily in set two, as the Boilers took the first four points of the set. Naturally, Penn State scored five of the next six to tie it at 5, but it finally looked like we were in for the type of volleyball we hoped we’d see, and we got it, as Purdue used a 4-1 run to lead 9-6, but the hosts countered with five of the next seven for 11-11. After that, the sides traded ones and twos through 19-19, when Penn State got the next point and drew a Purdue timeout at 19-20. Two of the next three went to the Good Gals, but Penn State got three straight, drawing Shondell’s other timeout at 21-23. A Newton kill staved off set point and had Purdue serving at 22-24, but Leath had the deciding point once again. 22-25 was much better than 11-25, but the Boilers hadn’t shown they could close out a set yet, and given the last three sets in West Lafayette, you’d be forgiven for expecting this to be an 0-3 affair.
With Hornung in at libero, set three started out 0-3 Penn State, but the Boilers got kills from Atkinson and Mohler, and then the sides traded points through 6-7, no big deal. A three-point Nittany Lion run made it 6-10, not much of a big deal, as an Atkinson kill cut the lead to three. But PSU got two more, drawing a Purdue timeout, and then another two, drawing the other timeout, and finally one more, and it was 7-15, with no timeouts left for Purdue. Then 8-16. The Boilers scored back-to-back points for 10-16, but they ended up trading points after that through 13-20, and down seven points and two sets, time was running out; most young teams would not have made a run, much less taken the set, but here’s what the Boilers did: Atkinson kill, Otec ace, Reed attack error. Timeout Penn State, Purdue down 16-20. Atkinson kill, Leath attack error, Cleveland/Johnson block of Serena Gray, and with an improbably 6-0 run, the seven-point deficit was cut to one. Leath got a kill to stop the run, and it survived a Purdue challenge of a back-row attack … but the Boilers weren’t done, as Atkinson and Johnson blocked Jonni Parker, Cleveland got a solo block of Reed, and then a Reed attack was out of play and suddenly the Boilers were up 22-21 and Penn State had to use their last timeout. Parker stopped the run with a kill to tie it at 22, but Atkinson made it 23-22. Leath responded with a kill for 23-all, but Parker’s attack on the next rally was out, and Purdue got to serve for the set: they didn’t waste the chance, as Newton’s kill made it 25-23, and all of a sudden it was 1-2 and the Boilers weren’t quite done yet.
Set four looked a lot like set one, as Purdue took the first point but got only a Jenna Hampton service error out of the next 8, and down 2-7, they had to use an early timeout. The teams traded points through 4-9, when a 4-1 Purdue run got the Boilers within two at 8-10. Again, they’d trade points through 10-13, and again, it was Purdue with a run, getting one kill from Cleveland and two from Newton to make it 13-all. They would lead 15-14 on two more Newton kills, but Penn State roared back with four points in a row around Purdue’s other timeout, and once again, the Boilers found themselves down late and out of timeouts. Once again, they would rally, with kills from Atkinson and Johnson drawing Purdue within one; Reed made it 17-19 with a kill, but a 4-0 run put the Good Gals back in front 21-19 and burned a Penn State timeout. Rose would use his other timeout at 23-21, but he could not get consecutive points out of his team, and after a Leath kill at 24-21, Mohler got the final point of the fourth set, and what looked to be an 0-3 loss was now an improbable 2-2 tie. Could the Boilers get to 15 first, and would it be enough? (Spoiler: yes and no.)
Penn State was the first to score consecutive points in the final set, with Purdue scoring first and alternating through 3-3, then Penn State leading 3-4 on a Bush attack error that was challenged but left alone. Leath made it 3-5 Penn State, and after a Mohler kill, Kaitlyn Hord made it 4-6, then combined with Weiskircher to block Newton for 4-7, and Shondell had to use a timeout. Atkinson got a point back on a kill, but a Terwilliger service error made it 5-8 and saw the teams switch sides. Penn State returned the favor with an attack error by Weiskircher, and then an Atkinson solo block of Reed drew Purdue within one, 7-8. The hosts tried to pull away again, with a kill by Reed and a Reed/Tori Gorrell block of Newton, forcing Shondell to use his final timeout, but again Atkinson responded with a kill for 8-10. Parker made it 8-11, but a Hampton service error gave the serve to Purdue at 9-11. A kill from Leath made it 9-12, but here came the Boilers, with two Atkinson kills around a Bush/Mohler block of Leath, and with a Penn State timeout burned, it was 12-all. Another Leath kill made it 12-13, and then it got interesting.
A Leath attack went long, tying it at 13; Rose challenged that there was a touch, but the call stood. On the next point, another Leath attack went long, another Rose challenge was not confirmed, and it was 14-13 Purdue; with match point in the visitors’ hands, Rose used his last timeout. Leath finally got a shot to land, and Penn State served at 14-all, but an Atkinson kill gave Purdue match point #2. Reed would be the next savior, with back-to-back kills putting Penn State in the barn, but Atkinson was having none of it, and her next kill tied it at 16; a Reed attack error made it 17-16 Purdue, and here came match point #3 for the Boilers. Kills from Reed and Parker gave Penn State a second match point, but a Marissa Hornung kill tied it, and an Atkinson kill made it 19-18. Match point #4 looked to be the magic one, as a Parker attack went long and the Purdue sideline erupted in celebration … but Rose had one more trick up his sleeve, challenging a net touch by Purdue. To be honest, I thought the attack was clearly in, but it may have been because the camera angle on BTN+ was on the end instead of the side; or maybe Rose just challenged the wrong thing? We’ll never know, because the call stood, and the Boilers survived an 0-2 hole, an 8-point deficit in set three, and three unsuccessful challenges in the last 8 Purdue points to finish a shocking five-set victory over one of the best teams in the country and one of the best coaches in history.
Do you want big numbers? Watch a five-set thriller that goes into overtime. The numbers likely would have been even bigger if Purdue had had a better first set; as it was, they held their own. Penn State had an edge in attack, with Purdue posting 68 kills at .233 to 69 at .257 for the hosts. Purdue had 67 assists to Penn State’s 62; PSU had an advantage in aces (2/-5 to 5/-2) and blocks (9-11), but Purdue had a clear edge in digs (62-53).
On the individual side, Sherridan Atkinson had the performance of a career, posting a career-high 32 kills, with no one else even within 10 kills of her, and hitting an incredible .518 with just 3 errors. Atkinson’s total tied the fifth-best performance in Purdue history, matching a total last hit by Joanna Lowry against Indiana in 2000, and her attack percentage would likely be a Purdue record for 40+ attempts in a match if they kept such a stat (the only percentage listed for 30+ is .600 by Anna Drewry against Ohio State in 2010 on exactly 30 attempts). For good measure, the 32 kills put her over the 1000-kill mark at Purdue, not a small feat for someone with just three years of eligibility here. Newton also managed to hit double figures with 15 kills, but she hit just .171. Bush just missed her career high, matching the 60 assists she had at Iowa two weeks prior. Otec (1/-1/???) and Peters (1/-1/???) were the only Boilers to record aces against PSU. Atkinson and Cleveland each had a solo block, with Atkinson matching Johnson at 2.0 total blocks apiece. It was a night for personal record books on the back line as well, as Hornung tied a career high with 16 digs, Otec matched the career high she set the night before with 14, and Reisinger set a career mark with 9.
Penn State’s attack was led by graduate student OH Taylor Leath, who posted 21 kills at .333 and made it a double-double with 12 digs; redshirt senior OH Nia Reed has 18 kills but hit just .208, while freshman MB Kaitlyn Hord had 10 kills at a team-leading .421. Redshirt senior setter Bryanna Weiskircher had a double-double as well with 52 assists and 10 digs, and was one of five Nittany Lions with an ace (even), joining freshman RS Jonni Parker (+1), freshman setter Gabby Blossom (+1), freshman DS Jenna Hampton (-2), and freshman MB Serena Gray (even). Reed, Leath and Gray each had a solo block, with Gray leading all players at 3.0 total blocks. Junior libero Kendall White, a Zionsville native and Cathedral alumna, led all players with 17 digs.
A team that can come back from 0-2, 13-20 at Penn State can win anywhere. As the Journal and Courier’s Nathan Baird put it, this was an epic comeback. Purdue hit over .300 for three straight sets against one of the best defensive teams in DI on their home court.
Having said that, they played even with Rutgers the night before for three sets. If they finish the season like they played Saturday, anything is possible. If they play like they did Friday, they’re going to struggle on the road again. Fortunately, they have a couple of home matches to prepare for the next road trip, which will be a lot like Saturday’s match.
How Minnesota isn’t the highest-ranked team in the conference in the polls, I’ll never know. They’re 36-2 in sets during conference play, losing a set to Nebraska home and away. They lost one other set in a win, vs North Carolina in Tallahassee, and have two losses, both to top-25 teams away from home (in Palo Alto, 1-3 to #18 Oregon and 1-3 to consensus #1 Stanford). Illinois dropped four sets in two matches … to Indiana. And have also been swept by Minnesota, like everyone so far but Nebraska.
Anyway, the Boilers are now alone in fifth, with Nebraska and Michigan both dropping matches; the Huskers’ loss to Illinois was quite a surprise and is likely the reason for the boost the Illini got in both polls and rankings. Note that Northwestern also had a fantastic weekend, stunning Iowa in five sets in Iowa City and sweeping Ohio State in Evanston. The Hawkeyes have a ranking that suggests an NCAA bid, but are unfortunately building a resume that will keep them out, with a sweep at Maryland giving them five consecutive losses.
Two favorable matchups, both projected to be 3-1 Purdue wins, with the struggling Spartans in the middle of a brutal stretch (at Illinois, home vs Minnesota and Wisconsin, at Purdue and Minnesota) and Indiana just beginning one (vs Michigan, at Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin, home to Iowa, Nebraska and Purdue).
Saturday’s match should be for the Monon Spike, since they played for it last year in Bloomington. I’m waiting for the official preview to confirm.
As per usual, you can listen for free online or on WSHY 104.3 FM. Start time on Saturday is 8 because the Iowa football game is at 3:30. Hopefully that will be another WW day for Purdue athletics.
Feature photo courtesy of Purdue Sports - not much to pick from with both matches on the road last week