Ready or not, a Texas volleyball team with four freshmen in the starting lineup begins the NCAA tournament angling for the school’s ninth appearance in the Final Four in the last 11 years.
Longhorns coach Jerritt Elliott said Wednesday that he doesn’t mind if those freshmen — outside hitter Logan Eggleston, middle blocker Brionne Butler, setter Jhenna Gabriel and libero Sydney Petersen — are a bit nervous for their first NCAA tournament.
“I told them if they don’t have nerves, there is something wrong,” Elliott said. “If they are not having butterflies going into this, then I’m concerned. That’s part of being an athlete.”
Are the kids ready otherwise?
“I would hope so. We’ve been working on this for a long time,” he said. “My gut right now is that they are in a good spot. We’re going to a battle with a bunch of young kids who can really play the game.”
Texas (20-4), which is the NCAA’s fifth overall seed, has won 10 straight matches and is the Big 12 champion. The Longhorns open with Stephen F. Austin (32-2) and are 31-0 all-time in the first round. Texas State (26-6) and Rice (24-6) play in the other first-round match at Gregory Gym. The winners meet Friday night to determine who advances to the regional that BYU will host in Provo, Utah — if the Cougars survive their first two rounds at home this week.
Petersen said the freshmen have gained the necessary experience after 24 matches.
“I don’t think we play like freshmen,” she said. “By now we are kind of used to the game.”
Fortunately for Elliott, Texas has some experienced players as well. Four of his hitters have accuracy of .300 or better — senior Yaazie Bedart-Ghani (.370) leads the way, followed by Butler (.363), senior Morgan Johnson (.358) and junior Micaya White (.310), who was the Big 12’s player of the year. All four were included on the all-conference first team. A fifth hitter, Eggleston, has .248 accuracy.
Texas ranks second behind BYU nationally in hitting percentage, at .308. Bedart-Ghani has hit .526 in the last six matches.
Elliott said the Longhorns have made the type of gradual improvement he expected while blending youth and experience.
“We are not elite at any one skill set,” he said. “Offensively our numbers have been better. I think our serving has become a little bit more consistent. Defensively we are playing better for longer periods of time.”
The Longhorns averaged 3.37 service errors per set in eight non-conference matches. They reduced the errors to 2.10 per set in 16 Big 12 matches.
One change that helped offensively was when Elliott promoted Gabriel to starting setter on Oct. 31 against TCU. She has started the last five matches.
Gabriel and the other freshmen will have the support of UT fans this weekend, but they would only get to play at home next week if BYU loses in the first or second round.
Elliott thought his team’s stronger overall strength of schedule and higher RPI computer ranking should influence the NCAA selection committee to award the regional to Texas instead of BYU. The Cougars also lost a key player to injury late in the season. But the Longhorns lost twice to No. 1 Stanford, and BYU beat the Cardinal. All of those matches came early in the season, in case that’s a consideration.
Regardless, Elliott said he would not use that perceived slight as motivation.
“There is no outside motivation,” Elliott said. “All that stuff is great for the media. Ultimately our goal was to be a top-four seed (and a regional host). We felt like we had a résumé that could have got that, but we didn’t. We’re not gonna cry about it.”
NCAA first, second rounds
Thursday-Friday, Gregory Gym, LHN
Thursday’s first round: Texas State (26-6) vs. Rice (24-6), 4 p.m.; Texas (20-4) vs. Stephen F. Austin (32-2), 7 p.m.
Friday’s second round: Thursday’s winners, 7 p.m.