The Ohio State women’s volleyball team was hungry on Saturday, and unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, they were on the night’s menu.
The Buckeyes put on arguably their best performance of the season, toppling No. 10 Penn State at St. John Arena in five sets (25-23, 15-25, 19-25, 25-22, 18-16). OSU’s last win over the Nittany Lions dates back to 2006.
The Buckeye momentum started rolling on Friday evening with a home sweep over Rutgers. Moving into Saturday, nearly 4,400 fans — including a rival student section, a rarity in collegiate regular season volleyball — packed into St. John Arena to watch the underdog defend their court against the Nittany Lion powerhouse.
Penn State swept the Buckeyes in University Park during their last matchup on Oct. 19.
OSU coach Geoff Carlston said he was overjoyed with the performance and determination that his team showed.
“I’m so happy for our team as a whole, but especially our seniors,” he said. “We’ve been grinding hard to get a win like that, and to be on the brink of defeat so many times but to be able to fight back like we did, I couldn’t be more proud.”
Carlston started out the game by changing his offense. His team ran a 6-2 against Penn State for the first time this season, which utilizes two setters and a total of six hitters, depending on rotation.
Right from the beginning of the first set, OSU limited the Nittany Lions’ multiple-point runs and stifled Penn State’s pair of dynamic hitters, Simone Lee and Haleigh Washington. Four straight Buckeye kills mid-set would make the score 15-10.
With few points left in the first set, Penn State inched their way back into contention, tying the score at 19, 21, 22 and 23. Senior middle blocker Taylor Sandbothe secured three kills in the final five points to give the Buckeyes an edge. An attacking error from the Nittany Lions would give the first set to OSU.
Senior libero Valeria León said the Buckeyes came out with a solid mindset, and that helped them play strong coming out of the gate.
“We believed that we’re good enough to beat them, so we came out with that thought,” she said.
Things turned sour for the Buckeyes in the second set as unforced errors caused OSU to play catch-up. They allowed Penn State to go on costly runs without countering.
Penn State held the Buckeyes to just a .077 attacking percentage, which allowed the Nittany Lions to capitalize on OSU’s mistakes and secure themselves the second set.
Carlston said to his team during intermission that they were going to have to fight back if they wanted a victory.
“After the second set, we talked about, “Moral victories suck,”” he said, recalling his pep talk following the second set. “We’re just as deserving as Penn State to win this match, but the game is not just going to give it to you.”
The Buckeyes improved slightly in the third set, but old habits from the prior set still lingered. A late OSU effort put the team within four points of the Nittany Lions at 19-23, but two Penn State kills quickly fell and ended the set. Penn State then held the advantage 2-1.
Both teams had a lot to lose in the fourth set, and the nine tie scores showed it. León led the Buckeyes on a three-point run to lock the score up at 9-9. Not long after, Penn State’s Abby Detering took the Nittany Lions on their own three-point run to an 11-13 edge.
Nearing the end of the fourth, it was anyone’s game. Senior middle blocker Taylor Sandbothe emerged with monstrous kills and a look on her face of pure determination. She put down eight kills without any trouble, and gave OSU the set win it needed to stay alive.
Entering the final set, the Buckeyes briefly held the lead before it changed hands to the Nittany Lions. Down by three points (7-10) in the critical fifth set, OSU took a timeout to evaluate their strategy. It was once again Sandbothe who slammed down another kill out of the break and helped to pull the Buckeyes out of the hole.
Back and forth play pushed the set to extra points, and the biggest crowd OSU has seen this season made themselves heard.
Senior setter Abby Fesl said it was motivating to hear those yells and cheers, and their voices added to the anticipation of the moment.
“Just hearing everyone towards the end of game five, really getting into it – I could tell people were feeling it with us, and that’s when you love to play the game,” she said.
Tied at 16-16, junior outside hitter Luisa Schirmer shined in the final moments. She swung away for two kills to give OSU the match victory and the upset.
Carlston said the fifth set says a lot about a team, and he’s glad his team persevered through the fire.
“The fifth set is just about heart and guts and grit. I was so happy with the heart and grit we showed, especially at the end,” he said.
Sandbothe led the team’s offense with 25 kills and tied sophomore outside hitter Audra Appold in attacking efficiency with .320. Sophomore setter Taylor Hughes had the program’s first triple-double in at least five years with 10 kills, 34 assists and 12 digs. Fesl also contributed 27 assists on the night, while León added 24 digs.
Fesl said the unsatisfying defeat they faced at Penn State on Oct. 19 was in OSU’s mind during tonight’s match.
“Going to Penn State mid-week a couple weeks ago and dropping three straight sets kind of sat with us for a while, so this win was really big for us,” she said. “It means a lot for us going forward.”
León has been through four years of losing to the Nittany Lions, and she said she’s proud to help put an end to that streak.
“They (Penn State) fought. They played hard, and they didn’t give it to us. We went out there and we got it,” she said. “It’s one of those feelings I’m not going to be able to recreate.”
Carlston said the nature of the Big Ten conference relies a lot on timing and opportunity.
“This is a league you put a lot of heart and soul into, but you have to be really patient (to get a win),” he said.
Ten years of patience paid off for the Buckeyes on Saturday.