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Back for more: Texas volleyball, still loaded from its Final Four run, is set for season

Mark Rosner
American-Statesman Correspondent
Texas players stand for the national anthem prior to a home match against Kansas last year at the Erwin Center. The Longhorns, who finished as national runners-up, are No. 1 in this season's preseason poll and will play their matches at Gregory Gym; their home matches were at the Erwin Center last year.

Close your eyes, grab a volleyball and fling it onto the practice court at Gregory Gym.

Chances are good the ball will land near a Longhorns player who received some level of All-American recognition last season. There were five of them, including first-teamers Logan Eggleston and Brionne Butler, both now seniors.

All that returning talent and experience makes Texas a favorite to compete for its third NCAA championship and the second under coach Jerritt Elliott, whose Longhorns won it all in 2012. Texas, 27-2 and the national runner-up last season, is No. 1 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association's preseason poll. The Longhorns open the season against No. 20 San Diego on Friday at 6 p.m. in Gregory Gym. 

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The Longhorns are perennial contenders for the Final Four. Elliott has led them to nine Final Fours since 2008, including five appearances in the championship match. Even so, he said this week that the job never gets easier.

“I lose sleep to this day stressing about how you keep this going,” Elliott said. “It’s almost easier building than it is trying to sustain.”

The Longhorns, seeded fourth overall last season in the NCAA tournament, lost the championship match to No. 2 Kentucky 3-1.

“We didn’t finish,” junior opposite hitter Skylar Fields said. “We talk about it every day, just to have that little reminder. We have an extra chip on our shoulder.”

Texas went 27-2 last year and was the national runner-up to Kentucky. The No. 1 Longhorns have been to nine Final Fours and five title matches since 2008.

Texas made an impressive run along the way, beating No. 1 Wisconsin, No. 5 Nebraska and No. 13 Penn State. Wisconsin, Kentucky and Nebraska are ranked second, third and fifth in the preseason poll.

Elliott expects the Longhorns to face extra fierce competition this season. He said a lot of good players around the country accepted a fifth year of eligibility the NCAA allowed because of COVID-19’s impact on college sports.

“It’s probably the toughest field that we’ll ever face,” Elliott said. “There will be some really good volleyball. What a great opportunity for our girls to get in there and mix it up a little bit.”

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Every Longhorn of consequence returns except libero Morgan O’Brien, who was a graduate transfer last year.

The Longhorns were typically strong at the net last season, finishing third nationally in hitting percentage with .334. They still have Eggleston at outside hitter, Fields at opposite hitter as well as on the outside, and Butler, Asjia O’Neal and Molly Phillips as middle blockers. Phillips also has played outside. Fields and O’Neal were honorable mention All-Americans last season as sophomores.

Texas middle blocker Molly Phillips, left, and outside hitter Logan Eggleston, right, both return for the top-ranked Longhorns this season. Eggleston is the reigning Big 12 player of the year. The Longhorns' season opens on Friday.

Fields blossomed during the NCAA run with a season-best 21 kills against Penn State and 18 versus Nebraska in their regional. Eggleston expects more improvement still from her teammate.

“She’s gotten immensely better,” Eggleston said. “We saw glimpses the entire tournament of just how effective she was on the outside, the kills she was getting, the blocks that she was making.”

Third-team All-American setter Jhenna Gabriel might face competition from second-year setter Naomi Cabello, a hotshot recruit who missed the first half of last season with an injury. Saige Ka’aha'aina-Torres, an all-Pac 12 honorable mention setter at Utah last season, announced that she will transfer to Texas. First she needs to graduate from Utah this summer, though. Elliott contemplates lineups with two setters.

Nalani Iosia, another top recruit last year, is the most likely replacement for O’Brien. Iosia played in 95 of 102 sets for Texas last season.

Elliott said the Longhorns have to guard against personal ambition becoming more important than winning.

“When you have the success that (we) had, everybody wants a little bit bigger piece of the pie,” Elliott said. “So now it's kind of managing those personalities and making sure that we're putting the team first, but we've got a really tight team.”

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Elliott arranged a typically tough nonconference schedule, including a match at No. 7 Minnesota on Sept. 1. The Longhorns face No. 23 Rice in Houston. The Owls upset Texas in five sets last season at the Erwin Center.

The Longhorns return to Gregory Gym after a season playing under COVID-19 restrictions at the more spacious Erwin Center, with a limited number of fans allowed. Teams coming to Gregory include San Diego, Stanford and Notre Dame, all ranked in the 20th-25th range. Texas State and Arizona, which received votes in the poll, also will find their way to Gregory.

The Big 12 has retained a scheduling format born of the pandemic last season. Instead of playing home-and-home matches spread out on the schedule, teams will meet on consecutive days at the same site.

That means the Longhorns will face No. 10 Baylor twice in Waco. Texas beat Baylor twice at the Erwin Center last November. The Longhorns beat Baylor twice more, in Austin and Waco, in March when the NCAA allowed Big 12 teams to schedule additional matches to prepare for the a postseason tournament that was moved from fall to spring because of COVID-19 concerns.  

“It’s almost surreal now that we can play in front of our fans at Gregory,” Elliott said. “We have players who are here now in their second year who have not played in front of our crowds, so it’s an exciting time.”