Volleyball

Next stop: Final Four? Texas volleyball relaxed and ready for BYU, regional

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Posted December 8th, 2016

R-E-L-A-X.

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers notably used those five letters to sooth the fears of Packers fans during the 2014 season. Two years later, that word can describe the mood in the Texas volleyball team’s locker room.

Texas (24-4) hosts BYU in the third round of the NCAA tournament on Friday, right before the other regional semifinal between Michigan and Creighton. The four losses are the most in a season for the Longhorns since 2012. That 2012 season, though, also was Texas’ last championship season. And this year’s group is showing signs of being a contender again.

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Since that last loss, which came a month ago  in five sets to Iowa State, Texas has dropped only one set in its last five matches, including two sweeps to open the NCAA tournament.

Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott, center, speaks with Chloe Collins(21) during a Big 12 Conference match at Gregory Gym Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)
Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott, center, speaks with Chloe Collins(21) during a Big 12 Conference match at Gregory Gym Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

After the 3-0 win over SMU in the second round last Saturday, Texas coach Jerritt Elliott was asked about the Longhorns’ confidence level.

“I think it’s more relaxed,” Elliott said. “This season hasn’t been as easy as seasons past because we’ve lost more games, but it’s been a little bit more enjoyable. I still have lost a lot more sleep, but it’s been trying to figure out the equation to it.”

Texas is back in the third round of the NCAA tournament for the 11th straight year. Senior Nicole Dalton, however, is the only remaining member of that title team. Texas’ roster doesn’t even bear much resemblance to its 2015 NCAA runner-up team that was led by Molly McCage, Kat Brooks and Amy Neal.

Take, for example, Texas’ starting lineup from last Saturday’s NCAA sweep of SMU and compare it to Texas’ starting unit from last season’s NCAA championship match. Outside hitters Micaya White and Ebony Nwanebu were injured in 2015, and defensive specialist Autumn Rounsaville was still in high school. Sophomore Morgan Johnson didn’t play in that loss to Nebraska, though classmate and fellow middle blocker Yaazie Bedart-Ghani started as an outside hitter.

That leaves setter Chloe Collins and libero Cat McCoy as the only carryovers between those two Texas teams. The fresh faces have stepped up, though.

Texas' Micaya White(1) hits past Kansas State's Katie Reininger(9) and Katie Brand(6) during a Big 12 Conference match at Gregory Gym Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)
Texas’ Micaya White(1) hits past Kansas State’s Katie Reininger(9) and Katie Brand(6) during a Big 12 Conference match at Gregory Gym Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

White and Nwanebu lead the team with their 4.03 and 3.67 kills-per-set averages; they joined Collins and senior outside hitter Paulina Prieto Cerame on this year’s all-conference team. Bedart-Ghani, who was moved to her new position in October, has connected on 27 of the 34 kill attempts in her last three games.

Johnson ended the regular season winning the Big 12’s defensive player of the week award, and owns 128 of Texas’ 266.5 blocks. McCoy has anchored the defense, averaging 3.9 digs per set, and Texas is limiting opponents to a .197 hitting percentage. Twelve of the Longhorns’ last 13 opponents have hit under that number.

“In practice, (the coaches) have just really been emphasizing digging high in the middle of the court to make it easier on Chloe so she can set nice balls,” McCoy said.

BYU, which bounced Texas from the Final Four in the 2014 semifinals, has won 13 straight matches.  The Cougars (29-3) have five players who have recorded 200 kills, and freshman outside hitter McKenna Miller is averaging 3.92 kills per set.

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