A rebuilding year lasts longer than expected for Longhorn Volleyball

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Photo Credit: Joshua Guerra | Daily Texan Staff

With two NCAA National Championships and five-straight Final Four appearances on their resume, the No. 4 Longhorns were not a true Cinderella team. 

But they still became one. 

For the second year in a row, Texas walked out of the National Championship dodging gold and silver victory streamers in a colosseum of red. After a season of defensive struggles and position changes, the Longhorns surpassed expectations. But a second runner-up finish seemed more haunting than the first.

“I walk away from the season obviously devastated we didn’t win this because I really, really wanted this and I felt we had a good shot going into this match,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “We’re kind of ready to get back to the point of taking this next step.”

Signs of a rebuilding year loomed over Texas. For the first time since 2010, the Longhorns didn’t win the Big 12, dropping matches to No. 6 Kansas and Iowa State due to season-long adjustments.

Despite having veterans in junior libero Cat McCoy  and senior setter Nicole Dalton leading the defense, passing remained inconsistent
throughout the season. Senior outside hitter Paulina Prieto Cerame struggled with her back row rotation, forcing freshman libero Autumn Rounsaville to step up.

A vacancy at the middle-blocker position proved troublesome for the team’s blocking. After trial and error with freshmen middle blockers Orie Agbaji and Blair Westerlund, sophomore Morgan Johnson took the starting position at middle blocker and outside hitter Yaazie Bedart-Ghani also moved to
the middle.

“I thought Yaazie and Mo had a tremendous year and gave us this opportunity to have this run,” Elliott said. “And I think Morgan is more of an M-2 than she is an M-1, but has developed now into a very solid player.”

But Texas’ strong suit was its offense. Led by junior outside hitter Ebony Nwanebu, freshman outside hitter Micaya White and Prieto Cerame, the Texas attack carried the Longhorns deep into the postseason.

Texas swept University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and SMU in the early rounds but faced potential elimination against BYU. In the fifth set of the Sweet 16, the Longhorns stared down a 12-7 deficit and two match points for the Cougars. White and Nwanebu fueled a comeback, nailing three kills for the victory. 

The red carpet rolled out as the Longhorns put an end to Creighton’s record-setting season in the Elite Eight with a 3-0 sweep, securing their fifth-straight Final Four appearance. In the much-anticipated rematch of the 2015 finals, the Longhorns defeated a senior-studded No. 1 Nebraska team in the NCAA semifinals. 

“I mean, late October I don’t think anybody would have picked us to be in the finals and we found a way to make that happen,” Elliott said. 

With a top-seeded upset, Texas was the favorite against No. 6 Stanford. But the Cardinal would wear down Texas’ Achilles heel: Its defense.

The 6-foot-6-inch and 6-foot-8-inch Stanford hitters lifted a daunting wall of blocks while freshman libero Morgan Hentz commanded the defense from behind, popping up balls that would normally hit the floor. 

As the Texas defense imploded, so did Prieto Cerame, prompting Elliott to move Bedart-Ghani back to outside hitter and Agbaji to enter as middle blocker for the first time since pre-season. 

Without a defense, the Texas offense was limited. Players collapsed to the floor in sadness after a 3-1 defeat, but despite all their weaknesses, the Longhorns concluded a rocky season that wasn’t supposed to last until the bitter end.

“I think one thing that this team had a lot was fight,” White said. “And we need to make sure we transfer that into next year’s team, definitely.”