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Washington swept by Penn State, eliminated in Sweet 16 of NCAA volleyball tournament

The Huskies (20-13) ended their season with an array of service and hitting errors despite, despite holding a lead in the third set over the eighth-seeded Penn State Nittany Lions.

STANFORD, Calif. — No. 8 Penn State swept the Washington women’s volleyball team Friday 26-24, 25-21, 25-21 in the Sweet 16 match at Stanford University.

But the Huskies’ fortunes just as easily could have been reversed if not for untimely serving and hitting errors.

“It’s a weird feeling,” star hitter Kara Bajema said. “Kind of like 50-50, knowing that you could have beaten them.”

As much as Washington tried, it just couldn’t rattle the Nittany Lions (26-7), who advanced to the Elite Eight on Saturday night against top-seeded Stanford, which beat Washington State 25-17, 24-26, 25-14, 25-19.

The UW match came down to a sequence in the first game when the Huskies (20-13) reached set point at 24-23 on a kill by  Samantha Drechsel.

Then Penn State reeled off three points, with the game ending on freshman Claire Hoffman’s hitting error.

The stunning turnaround encapsulated the day for Washington, which reached its sixth regional final in seven years by stunning No. 9 Creighton last week in Nebraska.

The Huskies were close but never could overcome a Penn State team that finished fifth in the Big Ten and advanced to a regional final for the second consecutive year.

But coach Keegan Cook didn’t show a hint of frustration because he came away feeling good about the Huskies’ future after the performance in California.

“It was our third regional in the last four years and it hasn’t always been the highest level on our end,” he said. “So I’m certainly pleased with the effort that the kids gave.”

In a sport with a thin margin of error, Washington failed to capitalize at opportune times that would have pressured the Nittany Lions into making mistakes.

“We were a few plays away,” Cook said. There were “one or two more plays the kids had to make.”

That was evident in the final game after the Huskies executed perfectly to take a commanding 17-12 lead.

Then it quickly fell apart behind the hitting of Penn State’s Taylor Leath and the serving of Kendall White and Tori Gorrell. The Nittany Lions’ Jenna Hampton also had some big digs to keep rallies going and demoralize Washington.

Cook couldn’t pinpoint one issue that made the difference just when it appeared the Huskies had come to life. But the coach said the team was stuck in a rotation that had caused problems much of the season.

“We called two timeouts and we went through our toolbox,” Cook said. “Just for hitters to have one more solution.”

But the Huskies couldn’t figure out how to slow down a team that “kept making plays over and over again,” Cook said.

Bajema, a 6-foot-2 junior from Lynden, led Washington with 13 kills in 36 attempts. But she faced a challenge throughout the game against Penn State’s formidable blockers.

“It felt like we were stuck in this two-point” deficit, she said. “You felt like you needed to get a kill in some situations. When it just wasn’t happening it can get frustrating.”

The players, though, never quit despite Penn State’s strong hitting led by Nia Reed (13 kills), Jonni Parker (10) and Leath (13).

“There is always a little bit of frustration when something that seems so simple doesn’t go up,” Bajema said. “Or we were just so close on a block move and we could have tied it up.”

Instead of dwelling on the could-have-beens, the Huskies talked about regrouping in January to prepare for the spring season.

Bajema promised that her senior year will be special.

“We’ll be able to start stronger because not everything is so new,” she said.

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