OMAHA, Neb. — Piling up in Jerritt Elliott’s home back in Austin are the chairs he has acquired for coaching in NCAA volleyball Final Fours.
Made of foam, they range from green to red to yellow, and they look completely out of place.
“It’s kind of hard to match with the decor in your house,” said Elliott, whose Texas team is making an appearance in the Final Four for the seventh time in eight seasons. “I need a cool sports bar.”
If one was to take a poll, No. 3 Texas probably would not receive the most votes for the deepest team or the one playing the hottest among the four semifinalists who’ll play at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center.
But the Horns are unquestionably the most seasoned, with nine players who have appeared in 20 national semifinal and championship matches. Compare that to Minnesota, Nebraska and Kansas, none of which has a player who has ever gone this deep into the postseason.
So this is a familiar routine for the Longhorns. They’ll be happy to tell you all about it. Pull up a chair.
“We’ve been here before, so we know exactly what we’re going to do today and tomorrow and how to prepare,” middle blocker Molly McCage said. “That being said, our team is very different. So the way I prepare tomorrow is way different than last year. Just getting our team ready is a different process.”
On Wednesday, McCage was among five Longhorns who were named All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. Amy Neal and Chiaka Ogbogu made first team, and Paulina Prieto Cerame second team. Chloe Collins joined McCage on the third team.
Minnesota, which squares off against Texas on Thursday night, had four All-Americans, led by first-team selections Daly Santana (OH) and Hannah Tapp (MB). Freshman setter Samantha Seliger-Swenson was second team and middle blocker Paige Tapp third team.
The Golden Gophers have come a long way after finishing eighth in the Big Ten and missing out on the postseason last year. They opened coach Hugh McCutcheon’s fourth season with losses to Texas A&M and Stanford before winning their next nine. Since the start of October, Minnesota has lost just once, on Nov. 21 at Purdue, and has won 21 of 22 matches, including a sweep of last year’s champion, Penn State.
“I think in the spring, we got some stuff done in terms of the weight room and the physical conditioning and also some of the fundamentals,” McCutcheon said.
Similarly, no one would have guessed before the season that Kansas’ run would have lasted this far after the Jayhawks were bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament by Arkansas-Little Rock. Nebraska was knocked off in the second round, one of several upset victims claimed in the tournament by eventual runner-up BYU.
So three of these four teams put together seasons of redemption, while Texas rinsed and repeated, punching a fourth straight Final Four ticket and making seniors McCage, Neal and Kat Brooks the first class in program history to advance to the Final Four each season. The class’ Final Four record is 2-2, beginning with wins over Michigan and Oregon for the 2013 national title followed by semifinal losses to Wisconsin and BYU.
After a first-round sweep of Fairfield, the road to Omaha got tricky for Texas. Purdue, UCLA and Florida all pushed the Longhorns past the point of comfort, especially the Gators, who forced a fifth set which Texas claimed 17-15 in last Saturday’s regional final at Gregory Gymnasium.
Minnesota has been dominant, sweeping Jackson State, Marquette and Illinois before crushing Hawaii’s Cinderella bid with a four-set victory in Des Moines, Iowa.
“This isn’t the most talented team we’ve had,” Elliott said. “We’ve got some deficiencies in certain areas and we make up for it in our belief and how we rebound.”