Talk about a storybook ending to a historic season.
Defending NCAA volleyball champion Penn State gave itself an early Christmas present last Saturday night in Oklahoma City, sweeping Brigham Young 25-21, 26-24, 25-14 to win a record seventh Division I national championship and sixth in the last eight seasons.
That Penn State took its second consecutive crown only five days before Christmas added to the excitement and anticipation of the festive season for Gonzalez and her family.The Nittany Lions’ run to yet another title capped a storybook career for Dominique Gonzalez, a senior defensive specialist who graduated from O’Connor High School in 2011.
“Last year, it was the same thing,” Gonzalez said Tuesday night at her parents’ home. “We won the championship and I came home. It was kind of surreal because it was my first one. This is the best Christmas gift you could ever ask for, not just for me, but for our family, our team and our coaches.
The Nittany Lions (36-3) won another title despite losing six players, including three All-Americans, from last year’s championship team to graduation.
But as he has done so many times during his storied 36-year career at Penn State, legendary coach Russ Rose retooled the machine and his players did the rest. Rose has 1,161 victories, more than any other Division I volleyball coach.
“The seniors on the team, we wanted to go out on top,” Gonzalez said. “When we finally got to that point after some people counted us out a little bit because lost three All-Americans from last year’s team, we were just ecstatic after we won. It was a little sad to leave my girls back at school, but I’m excited to be with my family and still celebrate the win and be with them at Christmas.”
Gonzalez’s parents, Debra and Roger Gonzalez, and her two older sisters, Nicki Gonzalez and Jaci Gonzalez Barrientes, were at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City last Thursday when No. 5 seed Penn State knocked off top-seeded Stanford in the semifinals.
The Nittany Lions and Stanford were tied for the most Division I volleyball national championships with six. Two nights later, Penn State made history with a dominant performance against BYU.
“It’s the icing on the cake,” said Roger Gonzalez, a San Antonio firefighter. “It was emotional because we knew it was the end of her Penn State career.”
Debra Gonzalez, who coached all three of her daughters through the eighth grade at St. Paul Catholic School, said it was difficult to watch her youngest play her final college match.
“It was very emotional because it seemed to come so fast,” she said. “It was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. We just started and it’s already ending.’ But it was sweet. It was sad. It was happy. We did share some tears.”
Dominique, known as “Dom” by her teammates and friends, was moved by what Rose told the team before it took the floor for the championship match.
“He said, ‘This is the last match you’ll ever play together. Embrace it. Run with it. Enjoy it. It’s the experience of a lifetime. Some people never get to experience it,'” Gonzalez said. “That was that.
“After we won, it was relief. Coach Rose told us, ‘The best way you can represent the teams from our conference is to go out there and play your hearts out.’ He was proud that we did and that we executed what he asked of us. He was thrilled that we won.”
Sharing the victory with her family was special for Gonzalez.
“It was great to have my family there,” she said. “Their support always has meant a lot to me.”
Gonzalez and her family drove back to San Antonio together the next day, arriving in the city about 8 p.m. Sunday.
“It was a nice, long car ride with the family,” Gonzalez said, chuckling.
The past week has been such a blur for Gonzalez that she hasn’t had much time to reflect on what the Nittany Lions accomplished this season.
“Last year it didn’t really set in until the spring sometime,” she said. “This year, it was kind of like it just happened. It hasn’t truly set in that that’s the last time I’ll play with this great group of girls. I won’t be putting on this jersey anymore. I couldn’t ask for more, to go out on a high note like that with that coaching staff and that program. I’m extremely grateful.
“Whether you talk to the current players or the alums, they always talk about upholding the Penn State tradition. When it comes to the volleyball program, there’s tons of tradition behind it, tons of past players that are on the Olympic team now and others who have done a lot for volleyball, and a legendary coach who has been there for 36 years. I’m proud we upheld the tradition.”
As the defending national champion, Penn State started the season as a marked team. The Nittany Lions were challenged at every turn, but they hung tough and held the line.
“Even teams in the middle of the pack are going to give you their best match,” Gonzalez said. “Whether they’re playing on TV or not playing on TV, they want to give you everything they’ve got because this measures them against a solid team. We had some great matches this season against teams that fought so hard. But we wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
Gonzalez and her two sisters were introduced to volleyball when they in elementary school, playing in CYO leagues.
Nicki, the oldest of the three Gonzalez children, graduated from Marshall and played college volleyball at UT-Brownsville. She is now head volleyball coach at John Paul II High School in Plano.
Jaci, who also graduated from O’Connor, played college volleyball at the University of Houston and is volleyball coach at Highlands High School.
By the time Dominique came along, the Gonzalez family was well entrenched in the city’s volleyball community.
“Friends of my family said I was born with a volleyball in my hands,” Gonzalez said, smiling. “Whether it was volleyball or basketball, I just wanted to play sports all the time. Volleyball really resonated with me. Going to club tournaments with my sisters, I’d sit there and watch them play. But I’d just get a ball and go to a wall somewhere and pass to myself.
“My mom coached me through middle school. She gave me the foundation. She taught me to work hard. Things are not going to come easy. When you have a parent for a coach, they’re never easy on you. That helped me a lot. It made me a stronger person, made me a tough kid who was able to handle criticism.”
Gonzalez played for Yamilet Garcia, one of the best coaches in San Antonio, at O’Connor, which has a strong volleyball tradition.
“Coach Garcia is very big on discipline and doing things the right way,” Gonzalez said. “She taught me a lot about teamwork. It’s not always about you. It’s about the team.”
Gonzalez attended volleyball camps at Penn State and Michigan in high school. She enjoyed her experience at Michigan, but she fell in love with Penn State immediately.
“I just felt that Penn State had something that no other school had,” she said. “When I walked in there, I felt like I was home. I didn’t feel like I was a million miles away from home. Penn State is a very close-knit community.
“I love not only being part of Penn State but the Big Ten Conference in general. I don’t think I could have picked a better place to go.”
Scheduled to graduate next May with a degree in kinesiology, Gonzalez would like to play volleyball professionally overseas. She has been selected for an internship in the Penn State athletic department, and will start a career in coaching if her pro plans don’t pan out.
“I want to continue to play as long as possible,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t think I’m ready to stop playing. That’s all I’ve ever known. Leaving volleyball is a little scary. Whenever I do decide I’m done with volleyball or it doesn’t pan out that I can play, I’ll probably be a strength and conditioning coach or I would love to coach college volleyball.