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As an unranked team from a private school in Virginia traveling to Big Ten heavyweight Pennsylvania State University, the odds were certainly stacked against Liberty University. PSU entered Friday’s match ranked No. 8 in the nation, a program which has won the national title four years running.
For Coach Shane Pinder and his team of Big South Champions the game represented more than just a shot at playing a world class program. It was a shot at putting Liberty on the map. With their reputation on the line, the Lady Flames marched into University Park, Pa. and did their school proud.
“The scouting report said that they were going to play hard and with a lot of pride. I think they did as they had to do to get into this tournament. They earned their right to be here and they did what they do well. They are keeping their heads high. I want to recognize Liberty for a terrific season,” Penn State head coach Russ Rose said.
Liberty started strong in the first set taking a 10-9 lead halfway through. Hitting against a front line, which had a clear height advantage, Liberty struggled to find holes in the Penn State defense. Sophomore Lillie Happel took the most swings and recorded a team high of nine kills. Junior Loren Thomas put down six kills and sophomore setter Jade Craycraft added five kills and 16 assists.
Even against such a high powered offense, the Lady Flames defense played at their usual high level, out-blocking the Nittany Lions 5-4 at the net. Thomas led the team with four block assists and redshirt sophomore Kendle Rollins, who only recently returned from a foot injury, added three more.
Senior libero Kelly Haseman put on a terrific performance in the back row. Haseman is the only player on the team that played perennial favorite Nebraska in the 2008 NCAA National Tournament. Her experience in big games was evident early on to everyone on the court.
Their libero was really good and dug a lot of balls. They dug every one of our hard-hit balls. We had to roll shots and tips to mix it up,” Penn State sophomore Ariel Scott said.
Playing in her last match as a Lady Flame, Haseman seemed to be everywhere at once. In just three sets, Haseman dug 18 balls to give Liberty’s hitters a fighting chance.
“I’m proud of our kids, our freshman and sophomores and Kelly, our only senior. She flew around the floor and for her last match I think she turned a few heads tonight,” Pinder said.
Beyond the athletics and the statistics on the court, the girls were strong representatives of Jesus Christ and the values to which Liberty holds dear. As is customary after a game, the team circled at half court for prayer with any members of the opposing team that would be willing or interested.
“The Penn State University has been through a lot and to have the opportunity to bring two teams together in this time and pray for this university and what is going on is great. It would be hard for us to walk out of here and not take advantage of the opportunity … Our captains ask every team we play to pray at the end of the game, and it is up to them if they come over or not. Some teams come and some don’t, but tonight Penn State came,” Pinder said.
“One of their girls asked us if we wanted to pray with them and we said yes. Their coach said a few words. It was really nice of them. It’s a tradition they have at their school, to pray with the other team,” Scott said.
“Much like the Nebraska game, it is a great opportunity for some healing in the Penn State family. We appreciate Liberty’s guidance in that area,” Rose said.