TAMPA — That Penn State and Texas, the nation's top two teams all season, meet tonight at the St. Pete Times Forum for the women's championship is hardly a surprise.
What is a surprise is that this is just the third time in the tournament's 29 years that both finalists are from outside the West Coast/Hawaii. It also happened in 1995 and 2000. That's a clear indication of the sport's eastward expansion.
"There was a time 30 years ago when the gap was huge," Penn State coach Russ Rose said of the West-vs.-the-rest landscape. "But now you find good teams and good coaches everywhere."
Consider that perennial power Stanford lost at home to Michigan in the regional semifinals and Florida State, which had never made it beyond the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, reached the regional finals, where it lost to Minnesota.
Florida coach Mary Wise said one reason for increasing parity is that an increasing number of outstanding athletes are choosing to play volleyball. "Years ago, it used to be that the recruiting bases were a few pockets mainly on the West Coast, but now we're seeing great talent all over the country," she said.
Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said the sport's increased media coverage has helped make more players comfortable about leaving California and remaining confident their skills will be developed.
For instance, his senior outside hitter Ashley Engle, junior outside hitter Juliann Faucette and freshman utility player Sha'Dare McNeal are from Southern California, and sophomore libero Sydney Yogi is from Hawaii.
Familiar face: First-year Texas assistant coach Salima Rockwell said tonight's match won't be weird for her. Rockwell was a three-time All-America setter at Penn State (1991-94) and spent two seasons (2007-08) at her alma mater as an assistant.
"I want everyone to play well," she said. "I want this to be a match everybody's talking about forever. And I'd like to come out on top."
Texas star senior Destinee Hooker said Rockwell is like "the mother of the team," who the players can go to with any problem, on or off the court.
He said it: When asked if, after winning 101 straight matches, he remembers what it's like to lose, Rose displayed his dry, quick wit: "Sure. I have a wife and four kids."
Times staff writer Antonya English contributed to this report.