Four years ago, Logan Eggleston experienced the atmosphere inside Gregory Gym for the first time.
Then a high school sophomore and still two months away from committing to Texas, Eggleston was there to watch the Longhorns’ five-set thriller against Iowa State. She had made the trip from Tennessee, where she wasn’t used to seeing such fervent interest in volleyball. She and 3,156 others filed into UT’s home gym on the same day as the Texas-Oklahoma football game in Dallas.
She said attending UT matches at Gregory in 2016 and 2017 helped solidify her decision to become a Longhorn. She skipped her senior year of high school and joined the program in 2018. Texas has averaged 3,761 fans through her first two years. Nationally, Texas has ranked fifth in attendance in each of the past three years.
But the Longhorns are moving into a new home. Because of coronavirus pandemic protocols, Texas will play its eight home matches at the Erwin Center this season. The first guests are the Kansas Jayhawks on Thursday and Friday.
“It’s definitely going to be different, but we’re excited,” Eggleston said. “We think we’ve prepared really well. We’re just ready to have a team come and compete against us here on campus.”
For years, Texas has enjoyed a home-court advantage at Gregory. The gym seats 4,000 and court-side fans and students aren’t that distanced from the players. “That gym is loud,” Baylor middle blocker Shelly Stafford said last year. “There’s shirtless guys about five feet on the left and there’s fans screaming on the right. You hear just all sorts of fun stuff being yelled at you.”
The Erwin Center last hosted a volleyball match in 1997. The arena has a capacity of 16,540, but only 1,500 seats will be available for volleyball to season-ticket holders and guests of both teams. Social distancing guidelines will be used in the lower bowl. Cheerleaders and Hook ‘Em will be in attendance. The band won’t.
“Obviously it would be nicer to be in Gregory Gym,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “But during these times, I’m looking at the glass half-full. We could not be playing and sitting at home.”
Texas has played in basketball arenas before. That’s been the case for Big 12 matches at Baylor, Iowa State, Texas Tech and West Virginia. The Longhorns know the court will still be 59 feet by 29.5 feet. The rules will remain the same.
Some adjustments, however, will be made. At the NCAA Final Four in 2016, former UT All-American Micaya White partially attributed her serving struggles to her depth perception and the lighting at the spacious Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. That could again be a problem for the Longhorns this fall.
“There for sure is a different depth perception. The ball moves a little bit differently, the game moves a little bit slower,” Elliott said. “The few times that we’ve practiced there so far, it’s been so good. It’s going to be pretty status quo moving forward.”
After beating Oklahoma twice last week, Texas is 2-0. For their efforts against the Sooners, Eggleston and junior middle blocker Brionne Butler were named the Big 12’s offensive and defensive players of the week. The Longhorns currently top the AVCA’s fall poll, which ranks teams from the Big 12, ACC, SEC and Sun Belt conferences.
On Thursday and Friday, Texas will host a Kansas team that split its season-opening series with No. 2 Baylor. Eggleston expressed confidence that the fans at the Erwin Center will make their presence known. She also conceded that the team will also need to create its own energy.
That means that Eggleston will continue to “get up in people’s faces,” and Texas will need more exuberant celebrations from setter Jhenna Gabriel and opposite hitter Skylar Fields. Another source of hype? According to Eggleston, Butler and Asjia O’Neal’s “facial expressions and the way they jump and will get on you after you make a great play. Also, our (defensive specialists) just do a great job of being loud, hyping us up.”
“I’m not too worried about the energy aspect of playing in Frank Erwin,” Eggleston said. “I think we all bring it.”