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Seeking perfection: High-flying Texas volleyball is soaring through its season so far

Mark Rosner
American-Statesman Correspondent

Sometimes human nature is the Texas volleyball team’s toughest opponent.

The Longhorns (15-0, 6-0 Big 12) have talent, experience and a No. 1 ranking they’ve held all season. They haven't lost a match. But they do lose concentration for stretches. 

“There's always some games where we get ahead and then we kind of get a little bit loose,” said Logan Eggleston, Texas' All-America outside hitter. “I think that's one of the biggest things we're working on, just trying to stay engaged the entire game.”

Texas rolled past TCU on Thursday and Friday nights at Gregory Gymnasium with a pair of sweeps, and perhaps there was no better example of Eggleston's assessment than the first set of Thursday's 25-21, 25-20, 25-19 win. The Longhorns led 22-10 at one point in the opening set before TCU rallied with an impressive 8-0 push. Texas hung on for the 25-21 win.

Texas volleyball coach Jerritt Elliott has deftly managed his Longhorns to a No. 1 ranking all season. Texas is 15-0. “We have obviously a ton of talent," he said. "I think the challenge is always going to be on our side of the net. And so when we stay at (a high) level of concentration we are really, really good.”

“We were clicking from all cylinders,” coach Jerritt Elliott said. “Then the wheels came off from a ball control standpoint."

Texas won the next two sets for its ninth sweep of the season and improved to 15-0 by beating TCU again on Friday night 25-13, 25-14, 25-22.

Texas has five players who received some level of All-America recognition last season while helping the Longhorns reach the national championship match that they lost to Kentucky. Eggleston and Brionne Butler were first-teamers, Jhenna Gabriel was on the third team, and Skylar Fields and Asjia O’Neal earned honorable mention.

Elliott has added Saige Ka’aha’aina-Torres, an honorable mention All-American who transferred from Utah.

More: Logan Eggleston is hungry for that elusive NCAA championship

Texas is aggressive and adept offensively, No. 3 nationally both in hitting percentage and in service aces per set. The Longhorns scorched TCU with 11 aces on Friday, including four apiece by O’Neal and Melanie Parra, who is No. 4 nationally in aces per set. Eggleston is No. 17.

Texas outside hitter Skylar Fields serves against TCU during Thursday night's sweep of the Horned Frogs. Fields was an honorable mention All-American last year, helping lead the Longhorns to the NCAA championship match.

This is a gifted team that comes at opponents from many angles.

“That’s what we talk about all the time,” Elliott said. “We have obviously a ton of talent. I think the challenge is always going to be on our side of the net. And so when we stay at (a high) level of concentration we are really, really good.”

The Longhorns have lost only two sets in a match once this season — the first two sets at Kansas on Oct. 9 before they recovered to win the next three.

“They came out a lot stronger than we expected,” Eggleston said of that match. “That's kind of on us not preparing as well for them and not being engaged from the start. It was very cool to see how we fought back. It was a very good test for us to have in the middle of the season.”

Texas' Saige Ka'aha'aina-Torres, left, was an honorable mention All-American last year for Utah. She joined the Longhorns as a graduate transfer and is settling in as Jhenna Gabriel's backup at setter.

Elliott praised his team effusively for that recovery.

“It was awesome how they won that,” he said. “This team has shown, at least to this point, that they’ve been really good in the crunch. When they’ve been down big they’ve fought back. For me it’s been great, (although) not during the actual match.”

More: Another year, another season of NCAA title expectations for Texas

The Longhorns have defeated three teams currently ranked in the American Volleyball Coaches Association's Top 25: No. 12 Minnesota in Minneapolis, No. 18 Stanford and No. 22 San Diego, dropping only one set in those, to the Gophers. Texas hasn't faced a ranked team since Sept. 5 and will not meet one until matches at No. 11 Baylor on Nov. 5-6.

Along the way, the Longhorns — who next play Iowa State in Ames on Thursday and Friday —will try to pass better than they did in parts of those two matches against Kansas and TCU. Elliott was displeased with eight service reception errors in the first match with TCU.

Consistent passing would enable the Longhorns to take advantage of the depth they have at the net with Eggleston, Fields, O’Neal, Butler and Molly Phillips.

Texas also will try to make newcomer Ka’aha’aina-Torres comfortable in the system as a backup setter. She joined the Longhorns with the season already in progress after clearing the UT admissions process as a graduate student. At 6 feet tall, she has four inches on Gabriel, the starting setter, which is an asset at the net.

“I think we’ve done a really good job with not being satisfied where we are,” O’Neal said. “We’re playing really well, but you never want to peak in the middle of the season. There’s always room to grow.”