It was a mixed bag Saturday night at the Sun Dome. Echoes of “We are” and “U-S-F” sounded from the 1,600 fans that packed the arena to see the USF volleyball team take on No. 1 Penn State.
The blue and white proved too tough to overcome as the Nittany Lions swept the Bulls 25-19, 25-6 and 25-17. But the atmosphere and competition were just part of the experience.
“It was an awesome atmosphere in the Sun Dome,” Bulls coach Courtney Draper said. “Having the community behind us — the students, the band — it was an amazing environment.”
USF (3-9) kept the crowd involved with a close first set, coming within six points. The Bulls were out-hit, which made it difficult to score.
The Bulls got off to a fast start in the second and managed their first lead of the match at 2-1. But they couldn’t hold on and fell behind, allowing Penn State to rattle off 13-straight points.
The Nittany Lions (11-0) outscored the Bulls 24-4 from then on.
“Penn State’s floor defense is pretty incredible, and we just couldn’t find kills,” Draper said. “We were hitting the ball well, but they would just scoop it up and return it.”
USF made a late push in the final set when it rallied down 22-13, scoring four straight points. The Bulls eventually succumbed to Penn State’s size and experience.
“I told our kids, ‘It’s the same game of volleyball, they’re just unusually large,’” Draper said of Penn State’s massive front line. “There’s just a lot of (6-foot-4), (6-foot-5) girls that we don’t see regularly in our conference.
“It’s tough to play against a team like that, but I felt like our kids stepped up and played very well.”
Penn State is a rare breed in college volleyball. The Nittany Lions came into Saturday on a 31-match winning streak with their last loss coming against Illinois in October. As if the streak wasn’t enough to intimidate opponents, 28 of their 31 wins were sweeps.
USF didn’t buy into the intimidation. For most of the match, the team looked loose and all smiles before arguably the biggest match of their careers.
“Penn State was the biggest game (I’ve played in), but I really wasn’t even nervous,” senior defensive specialist Wylie Devlin said. “We were just trying to get loose and have fun.
“It’s the people on the court, I have to tell you. The girls are amazing and they keep me smiling and I keep them smiling. We have some jokes and it just works out that way.”
For the Bulls, this match was going to be an uphill battle no matter how they looked at it. So, the team’s mindset was simple — just enjoy the experience.
“When there are no expectations when you’re playing one of the top five teams in the country, when we’re just outside of the 100 range, you have nothing to lose,” Draper said.
Earlier Saturday, the Bulls were swept by Auburn (8-4), but rebounded to sweep Florida A&M (0-13) on Sunday.