Time for celebration over, Texas sets its eyes on an NCAA volleyball title run
Once Texas volleyball players made it back to the locker room after their Elite Eight victory over Nebraska on Monday evening, they broke out into a full-on dance party with jumping, shouts and smiles galore.
But they could only celebrate the win and their Final Four berth that night, libero Morgan O'Brien said. Head coach Jerritt Elliott wanted the team to wake up Tuesday morning with a new focus in mind: top-seeded Wisconsin. The fourth-seeded Longhorns (26-1) meet the Badgers (18-0) on Thursday night in the national semifinals; the winner will play either Kentucky or Washington in Saturday's championship match.
“I’ve played Wisconsin a lot and I love playing them,” O’Brien said. “They have great defense. They battle really hard. Obviously, they have a lot of good weapons in hitters, and we do, too. So I think it’s going to be a great matchup and it’s going to be really fun just to battle it out with them.”
O'Brien, a graduate transfer who arrived at Texas last fall, last appeared in a Final Four in 2018 when she was a sophomore at Illinois. She's the only Longhorn with Final Four experience. It's been five years since the Texas program punched that ticket.
O’Brien can’t totally identify with the hunger that fuels this year’s squad, but advancing this far means a lot to her after playing two seasons worth of matches since September.
“This really pays off. That feeling just knowing like, ‘Wow, we’re going to the Final Four. We’re here.’ It’s huge,” O'Brien said. “... It’s so fun to do it with people that you’ve been working so hard throughout the year with.”
Elliott said O’Brien’s presence in the backcourt has been paramount this season. That piece is something the team has missed in recent years. But O’Brien is just one player on a stacked roster. Outside hitter Logan Eggleston and middle blocker Brionne Butler were named first-team All-Americans on Wednesday by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. Setter Jhenna Gabriel made the third team and Asjia O’Neal and Skylar Fields earned honorable mentions.
This team has been one of Elliot’s favorites to coach, he said, but not solely because of the players' skills and physicality.
“They’re selfless,” he said. “You go through so many seasons and each team is a little bit different, but this team has been truly a joy … With all the stuff that’s been going on with social media and all the things — it’s made them united.”
Between social unrest and the pandemic, it has been quite the year, but the Longhorns have remained vigilant. Like most college students, they haven’t been able to act like normal 18-to-22-year olds, especially as athletes. After such a long season, recovery is crucial.
The tournament, which is in Omaha, Neb., has been fast-paced, with few breaks between matches. Texas played Nebraska not even 24 hours after defeating Penn State in Sunday's Sweet 16. Elliott thinks the NCAA could do a better job at giving the athletes a rest period.
“We really need to have a day in between, for the rest of the athletes, but also for the emotional side of that,” the coach said. “... These games — there is high adrenaline in every one because there is so much on the line.”
A lot will be on the line Thursday when the Longhorns and Badgers vie for a spot in the national championship match. Texas will have to win in the serving and passing game to upend arguably its most challenging opponent yet. If things go the Longhorns’ way, maybe after the match they can party again.
“It’ll be an absolute war,” Elliott said. “And we look forward to it.”