Texas's Amy Neal helped the Longhorns defeat Nebraska in five sets Friday night. (Deborah Cannon/American-Statesman 2014)

Volleyball

Neal’s difficult freshman season set her up for success at Texas

Senior from Lake Travis the favorite for Big 12 POY

Posted November 25th, 2015

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Story highlights
  • After appearing in just one postseason match in 2012 national championship run, Amy Neal hopes to close her Texas career with another title
  • Amy Neal, the favorite for Big 12 player of the year, says she has no desire to continue playing volleyball after this season
  • Big 12 champion Texas closes the regular season at Oklahoma on Saturday.

Two weeks ago, Amy Neal’s volleyball career came full circle at the service line.

The Texas senior dusted off and began using the jump topspin serve she had boxed away her freshman year when she lost all confidence in her game.

“I got super timid,” Neal said. “But now I’m doing it again.”

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The serve’s return is symbolic of Neal’s maturation. Once a freshman who was terrified to make a mistake and let down her coaches, Neal, an undersized outside hitter, is now the frontrunner for Big 12 player of the year and a candidate for first-team All-America.

Longhorns coach Jerritt Elliott counts Neal, of Lake Travis, among his favorite success stories. Though she was the state’s Gatorade player of the year, Neal stood a pedestrian 5 feet, 9-inches, and Elliott questioned if she would ever contribute to the front row. He also was displeased with her commitment once she got onto campus and did different things to break her out of her comfort zone. For a while, he was forcing Neal, who can be quiet, to scream, “Mine!” when a ball came near her at practice.

“It was awkward,” teammate Molly McCage said. “It was not Amy.”

There were stern discussions between the coach and his rookie — “And at the time, I didn’t like him being stern,” Neal said.

So after year one, no one was happy.

“She was always the golden child, but when you come to a program like Texas, there’s a lot of golden children,” Elliott said. “It can sit you back on your heals. It’s not easy to climb out of unless you’re working at it every day.”

On Friday, Elliott’s golden children, who are ranked No. 3 nationally, wrap up the regular season at Oklahoma. With a win, they will claim outright the Big 12 title they grabbed a share of on senior day against Kansas State last Saturday.

“I would love to win on OU’s floor,” Neal said.

Elliott admits he didn’t believe Neal would get as good as she’s gotten, but that “nobody did” because of her height. Playing all six rotations, she leads the Big 12 in kills (4.25 per set), service aces (0.45) and points (4.90), and along with McCage and Kat Brooks, makes up the winningest class in Texas history.

Add all of that up and it’s easy to see why Neal’s getting mentioned for player of the year, which would be the seventh straight season Texas has collected the award. Kansas’ Kelsie Payne, of Connally High, is Neal’s biggest challenger. The winner will be announced Monday.

“Nothing would be better than to win a national championship with the team,” Neal said. “I couldn’t care less about (player of the year). I just want to win.”

As a freshman, Neal appeared in just one postseason match — a first-round win over Colgate — during Texas’ run to the 2012 national championship. That spring, Neal said she raised her commitment level and began pushing herself in the weight room, always striving for extra reps.

“I’m rarely on Amy anymore because she works hard and does all of the things we were looking for early in her career,” Elliott said.

Whenever this season is over, so too will Neal’s volleyball career. She plans to graduate in May with a degree in human relations and has no desire to make volleyball her job. Instead, she’ll pursue a career in sales or marketing. She hasn’t decided if she’ll leave Austin, but the smart guess is she’d have a hard time saying goodbye to a slew of relatives that attend all of her home matches. Among them are Neal’s nieces, 9-month twins who wear shirts that read, “I love Aunt Amy.”

“I just want to go out on top here and move onto something else,” Neal said. “I have other things to offer besides volleyball.”

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