Appearing in three final fours in three years — along with a number of All-American award-winners — has made Texas volleyball one of the best and most respected programs in the country.
But despite of all of the records and accomplishments the Longhorns have reached under head coach Jerritt Elliott, there is still one last step for the team to take to become a truly elite volleyball power: Texas needs to win a national championship.
The last three seasons the Longhorns (22-5) have come agonizingly close to reaching that goal, losing in the final four each of those tournaments. In 2009, Texas lost a two-set lead to Penn State in the finals, falling just two points short of finally winning a national title.
The defeats in those final four matchups still sting, especially for the members of this year’s senior class. The team will look to use that disappointment to their advantage this time around, starting today in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Texas State. Texas is trying to funnel the memories and lessons learned from previous losses to fuel the fire.
“We are definitely hungry,” said senior Rachael Adams. “That’s exactly what our senior class brings. That experience and that drive and determination that a lot of teams don’t have, we are definitely ready.”
This year’s squad has worked through a lot to get to this point. At the beginning of the season, there was an influx of youth on the roster, leading to an adjustment period while the team fought through chemistry issues.
But the Longhorns never believed it would hamper them for long, and it only took a few games for the team to really come together and form the right blend. Despite losing the services of freshman outside hitter Khat Bell to a knee injury, the Longhorns have bounced back. The mid-season return of utility player Sha’Dare McNeal helped the lineup really hit its stride — Texas has reeled off 14 straight wins.
“We always have our rough patches at the beginning of the season, especially with a lot of new players coming in,” said sophomore Hannah Allison. “I think that even though we were struggling, we had that confidence that this is where we are now and this is where we want to be by the end of the season.”
Texas is the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tourney this year after winning its fifth Big 12 Championship and is ready to embrace the expectations.
“You would think we’d feel pressure,” Adams said. “But we found out [the seeding], swept it behind us and moved on. We just continue to get better. A lot of teams would feel the pressure, but none here.”
The pressure will be on the other schools when they step into Gregory Gym this weekend to partake in the regional round, as they not only have to deal with one of the best squads in the nation, but also perhaps the loudest crowd.
The first opponent for Texas in the NCAA Tournament is Texas State, the Southland Conference champion. The Bobcats will look to come in and knock off their in-state rivals, so Texas is certainly not taking them lightly.
“We’re very ready,” Adams said. “Texas State is in front of us and when the first ball is served we’re going to be ready to go.”