Last week, Texas opened its 34th appearance at the NCAA tournament with a sweep of Fairfield. As he got to the podium for his postgame press conference, however, head coach Jerritt Elliott seemed a bit perplexed.
A name card had been left in front of Elliott’s seat, but UT’s longtime coach noticed that the city listed under his name was his hometown of Pacific Palisades, Calif. Elliott, who has been at Texas since 2001, wondered aloud why he wasn’t yet considered a Texan.
Elliott will head “home” for the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, and he’ll be joined by fellow Californians Yaazie Bedart-Ghani (Los Angeles), Lexi Sun (Encinitas) and Olivia Zelon (Santa Monica). Texas (26-2) is set to meet Utah (24-9) in a Sweet 16 match hosted by Stanford University on Friday. If victorious against the Utes, a Saturday showdown with either the host Cardinal (28-3) or Wisconsin (22-9) would stand between UT and a sixth straight trip to the Final Four.
This will be Texas’ second appearance in California this season. Sun’s family, in fact, hosted a dinner when UT competed in a tournament in early September at the University of San Diego. This trip, though, will be much more of a business trip than a homecoming.
“I think we’re just more focused on the games this time,” said Sun, a freshman outside hitter.
Zelon is traveling with the team, but the freshman libero has not played in what will likely be her redshirt season. Sun and Bedart-Ghani, on the other hand, have found different ways to contribute to UT’s 20-match winning streak.
The top-rated recruit in the Class of 2017, Sun’s 3.38 kills per set trail only sophomore Micaya White (3.45) among the Longhorns. The 6-2 Sun has 15 aces, and she has had a presence on UT’s defense (1.55 digs and .67 blocks per set). A first-team selection on the Big 12’s all-conference team, Sun also earned AVCA all-region honors this week.
Sun said college volleyball is “a whole different game,” and she has had to adjust to faster-paced action against athletes who are her equal. Sun, who has been on campus since June, is also getting used to her life as a college student.
“I’m learning a lot about myself, how to live on my own which is really good for me. (I’m) learning how to become more independent,” Sun said. “Honestly, it’s been great, not as hard of a transition as I thought it was going to be.”
While Sun has played in all of Texas’ 28 matches, Bedart-Ghani has appeared in 16. Bedart-Ghani, who is a junior, is averaging 1.63 kills per set during what has been another season of change for the 6-4 outside hitter.
Bedart-Ghani earned a spot on the NCAA’s all-tournament team in 2015, but she transitioned to middle blocker during the 2016 season. Bedart-Ghani won the Muscle Milk “Athlete of the Year” Award in May, an achievement that acknowledged her dedication to sports nutrition. Bedart-Ghani also moved back to her right-side spot during the spring, but she lost a battle for playing time to All-American senior Ebony Nwanebu.
Bedart-Ghani, however, is still one of the team’s three captains, a position of leadership she attributed to her work ethic. Elliott said “Yaazie carries herself like a late-30-year-old,” and he noted that she has taken an interest in mentoring the team’s freshmen. Elliott pointed out a recent practice where Bedart-Ghani pulled redshirting freshman Brionne Butler aside to practice on her serving.
“She’s got everything you’d want as a coach. She’s one of our warriors,” Elliott said. “As I told her last week, I’ll be forever indebted to her and I can’t wait to be able to pay her back for some of the things she does when she goes onto her real life after volleyball.”
Bedart-Ghani said she has tried to make her teammates better during what has “been a year of growth, both physically and mentally.” Those non-statistical contributions have helped guide Texas to the No. 2 ranking in the AVCA’s national poll.
Texas has yet to drop a set in the NCAA tournament, and the Longhorns have swept four of their last five foes. Texas ranks second nationally in blocks (3.24 per set), and only four teams have a better hitting percentage than UT’s .318.
“I think we’re just constantly getting better, and I think that’s a really great place to be in the tournament,” Bedart-Ghani said. “You want to be playing your volleyball towards the end, and I think that’s where we’re heading.”