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Golden: Texas volleyball will be back in the title ring next season

Texas finishes the season at 27-2

  • Kentucky won 20-25, 25-18, 25-23, 25-22.
  • Texas was in the title game for the first time since 2016.
  • Texas coach Jerritt Elliott dropped to 1-4 in title games.

Texas will be back in the title ring.

Next season, to be exact.

Team leader Logan Eggleston said as much after Saturday night's four-set loss to Kentucky in the NCAA Volleyball Tournament championship match.

Her word should be more than enough for Longhorn Nation.

The Longhorns, who are expected to return virtually their entire roster, are simply too talented to be denied another chance to put on that bride’s gown.

In what was the most unique season in the sport’s history, Texas missed out on a chance to start a dynastic title run with a roster that should return the deepest front line in the country.

Oh, what could have been. The Horns were good enough, but not great just yet. We need to stop and give this young crew credit for a tremendous 27-2 season that was wrought with challenges no one could have ever imagined just three years ago.

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Texas players hug each other after losing in four sets to Kentucky in the NCAA women's volleyball title game Saturday in Omaha, Neb. The Horns finished the season at 27-2.

They singlehandedly shut down the Big Ten by winning nine of 11 sets against Penn State, Nebraska and Wisconsin to get to the doorstep of the third national championship in program history.

Kentucky proved too strong on Saturday. Too resilient. Too clutch. Too efficient.

The Horns didn’t choke in their first national title match appearance since 2016. The Wildcats were simply better on the crucial points. Normally, a team that hits .417 in a set is in good shape, but Kentucky somehow pulled it out to put go up 2-1 and push the Horns to the brink of elimination.

The 20-25, 25-18, 25-23, 25-22 loss was as close as the score suggests. Texas losing wasn’t because of any lack of effort of drop in production on its part.

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Two great teams met. One celebrated while the other is back at the drawing board.

Eggleston and attacker Skylar Fields were great the entire tournament as were middles Brionne Butler and Asjia O’Neal up until the finale, when the Wildcats were able to steer the action away from them.

Texas outside hitter Skylar Fields gets a kill against Kentucky's Madi Skinner and Elise Goetzinger during the second set. Fields, a sophomore, had a big season this year for the Longhorns.

The Wildcats won because they were much tighter in the areas that mattered most after overcoming an icy first set where they hit only .216. Setter Madison Lilley showed why she's the national player of the year with 116 total assists in the two Final Four matches, 53 coming in the finale, making UK the first SEC school to win a volleyball title.

Outside hitter Alli Stumler, with an able assist from 5-10 leaper Azhani Tealer, more than held her own against a formidable Texas front with a game-high 26 kills.

Try as they might, the Horns were unable to sustain momentum in  the fateful fourth set, letting leads of 7-2 and 11-7 slip away.

For coach Jerritt Elliott, who dropped to 1-4 in title games during his 20-year tenure as UT's coach, it was the conclusion to a season where he allowed his players to be themselves and express their opinions as our country battled against COVID-19 and civil unrest.

Great year, but a bittersweet night at the office in the last match.

The look on his face following the game was one of disappointment but also of pride and hope because he knows what he has coming back next season.

“We’ve had two seasons,” Elliott said. “I’ve been to a lot of Final Fours, but I don’t know I’ve ever been as proud of a team that hasn’t been all the way to the top of the mountain. We had a lot of things thrown at us and we had to sacrifice a lot.”

Texas outside hitter Logan Eggleston reaches for a dig against Kentucky in the third set of the NCAA volleyball championship match. Eggleston and teammate Brionne Butler were named to the all-tournament team.

Through all the sacrifice, Elliott says a family emerged, one that was supportive of its members and united in winning on the court and sticking up for causes near and dear to their hearts.

Last summer, the team used its platform to speak out against social injustice as the country raged amid protests against police brutality. A 41-second video scripted by Eggleston and O’Neal went viral on social media in September. The team also expressed its views on the "Eyes of Texas" controversy in a meeting with athletic director Chris Del Conte as the football team battled locker room division over the issue.

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Amid all the off-the-court activity, the Horns kept winning, going 16-0 in the first half of the season and 11-2 after games were halted abruptly and switched to the spring in late November due to COVID-19 issues.

Looking ahead, the only thing that can keep the Horns from being back in the championship match next season is the Horns.

The serving and ball handling on the back end will improve, and just as important, the bigs up front will return in just a few months with a healthy obsession to close the show.

Hopefully that will include Butler. The first-team All-American middle blocker is an absolute wall who led the nation in blocks. She may choose to leave after spending four years on campus, including a redshirt freshman season.

I asked Eggleston if she would have to sell her buddy on one more run at the crown.

“I hope not. I think she’s super hungry. She’s one of the most competitive people on our team," Eggleston said. "She came to Texas for a reason and that’s to win a national championship. I think we’ve proved that we have the ability to do that. I see everybody coming back stronger than we were this year.”

As the country continues to grapple with civil unrest while COVID-19 remains a formidable foe, these players actually  surprised themselves by growing even closer this year than last. When a talented group plays with passion, togetherness, and yes, love for one another, great things can happen.

Saturday’s disappointment will strengthen a resolve that revealed itself over these last nine months.

Texas will be back.

Texas will be better.