Senior Chiaka Ogbogu lost a year of her playing career in 2016, but she gained so much more in the process.
Ogbogu developed into a star in her first three seasons with Texas. The 6-foot-2-inch middle blocker led the Longhorns to the 2015 Final Four as a junior, earning her the honor of being an AVCA First-Team All-American.
Ogbogu looked poised to take her team back to the title game in her senior year, but that changed when she received some devastating news. Due to academic issues, she was declared ineligible for the 2016 season.
And just like that, a career on a fast track for greatness suddenly got put on pause.
“It was hard,” Ogbogu said. “My coaching staff and teammates were really supportive, but I had to get acclimated to a whole new way of life.”
Texas stayed the course despite losing its star, reaching the championship again before falling to Stanford in the national title game. Ogbogu watched on as nothing more than a fan, unable to lead her team.
But instead of looking for pity, Ogbogu looked for ways to stay game-ready, refusing to lose her edge.
“I practiced quite a bit,” Ogbogu said. “Our strength coach was really good at giving me an individual workout plan for when I was back home, and I just stuck with that. It’s made my transition back a lot easier.”
That persistence is paying off this season as Ogbogu is back in burnt orange for one last run at a title.
Every match is a second opportunity for Ogbogu, and her time away from the team has given her a fresh perspective on playing the sport she loves.
“When you spend time away from something, you really gain a newfound appreciation for it,” Ogbogu said. “I’m coming back with a renewed spirit, and it’s been great so far.”
Ogbogu made her presence known this past weekend in the USD Tournament as she recorded 22 kills and 21 blocks in three matches. The No. 5 Longhorns fed off her intensity, claiming a trio of wins against Villanova, Georgia Tech and No. 15 San Diego.
“(Ogbogu) was a big key for us,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “We were struggling early against San Diego, and we really made an effort to get her the ball. She puts a lot of pressure on our opponents, and we’re thrilled to have her back.”
Texas needs Ogbogu’s high level of play to continue this week as the team hosts the American Campus Classic. It’ll be Ogbogu’s first regular-season home stand since 2015.
The Longhorns have a pair of matches on Thursday, facing Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and the University of Denver. Those matches are followed by a top-five showdown on Friday against No. 1 Minnesota.
“Minnesota is extremely balanced and well-coached,” Elliott said. “It’ll be good for our team to get uncomfortable, and we’ll get to see where our players are at.”
The stretch poses yet another challenge for a Texas squad that’s already taken on three ranked opponents in its first five matches. But after a year away from the 40 Acres, Obgobu isn’t concerned about the opponents. She’s just happy to be home in front of the burnt orange faithful.
“It’s going to be an indescribable feeling,” Ogbogu said. “Playing in that gym is very special, and I feel we have the best fans in the country. I’m just glad to get back to it.”