TAMPA — All-America senior outside hitters Megan Hodge of Penn State and Destinee Hooker of Texas have shared a bond since they happened to take an official volleyball recruiting visit to Texas at the same time.
"We go way back," Hodge said. "We're good friends."
"We just clicked," Hooker said. "We just hit it off."
During that weekend in Austin in 2005, they laughed together. They talked about boys.
And they pondered their college possibilities, though not as a tandem.
"Never once did we say, "Let's go to this place together,' " Hooker said. "If we did, it would be a really unstoppable team."
Not that their current teams are shabby.
Hodge has helped power No. 1-ranked Penn State (37-0) to 101 straight wins and, more important, to the past two NCAA titles.
No school has pulled off a three-peat, which is what she and the Nittany Lions are looking for tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum against Hooker and the No. 2-ranked Longhorns (29-1).
Neither Penn State nor Texas is a one-woman show. Far from it. But somehow it's appropriate that Hodge and Hooker are meeting one last time as collegians. And it's fortuitous, to say the least, for the sport.
"When you get this, it's the Kobe Bryant-LeBron James matchup," Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said Friday. "They're players who don't come across collegiate volleyball very often."
"What you would hope would happen," Penn State coach Russ Rose said, "is that there's a whole bunch of young girls around the country watching volleyball that see two charismatic players going out there and playing hard and playing with passion, and that it sparks more young kids playing volleyball around the country."
Hodge and Hooker are that special.
It's not merely that both can touch about 11 feet, soaring off the ground like basketball players. (Hooker was a prep star in San Antonio and could have gone to Penn State to play that sport.) They have the instincts, timing and body control to connect with a ball at its highest point and direct it with uncommon accuracy and impunity.
"There's not a lot of guys who are as athletic as Megan and Destinee," Rose said. "I'm not just talking girls here. I'm talking guys."
"You need to see them in person and how fast the ball moves and what they can do," said Elliott, who has thought about the embarrassment of riches he would have had on the floor had Hodge also decided to sign with Texas. "It's going to be fun to watch."
Hodge, selected the outstanding player of the tournament's Gainesville Region, is hitting .386 with 539 kills. Even in a subpar performance in the semifinals Thursday against Hawaii (.145 hitting percentage), she still led the team with 12 kills.
Hooker, selected the outstanding player of the Omaha Region, is hitting .361 with 492 kills and was stellar Thursday against Minnesota with 17 kills.
"Her ability to jump and make freakishly athletic plays is something you have to admire," Hodge said of her friend.
Both players also have a passion that inspires those around them.
Hooker said she watched Hodge against Hawaii, "and she was slapping fists and jumping up and down, and I was like, 'Wow. That's another me.'
"We're both very energetic. It's going to be a great matchup. I'm really looking forward to it."