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Texas volleyball: Longhorns eye a title in postseason return to Gregory Gym

Texas players take the court prior to the Oct. 14 win over TCU at Gregory Gym. The Longhorns (24-1) are the No. 2 overall seed in this year's NCAA Tournament, which starts Thursday. Texas was last year's NCAA runner-up.

At the conclusion of the last two Texas volleyball seasons, Logan Eggleston has met with the media.

Two years ago, the Longhorns' outside hitter expressed disappointment and heartbreak on the podium after a third-round upset loss to Louisville in the NCAA Tournament. "It sucks a lot," the then-sophomore said.

Last year, she stared back at a camera after Texas came up short against Kentucky in the NCAA championship match. While fighting back tears, she vowed to anyone listening over that Zoom call that "we're winning next year."

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Since Eggleston is both an on-court force — the 6-foot-2 junior was named the Big 12's player of the year on Tuesday — and a third-year captain, it stands to reason that she'll be heard from again whenever the Longhorns wrap up their 2021 season.

Eggleston, though, is hoping that this year's exit interview will be more celebratory than somber.

"We're all pumped up and ready to finish the business that we started last year," she said Wednesday.

Texas begins its hunt for the program's first national championship since 2012 on Thursday. The No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, Texas (24-1) will play Sacred Heart (19-9) in the first round (7 p.m., Gregory Gym).

All-time, Texas boasts a 33-0 record in the NCAA's first round. If it improves to 34-0, UT will advance to play either Rice (19-6) or San Diego (20-7) on Friday night.

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Texas and Sacred Heart have never played each other. The Pioneers won the Northeast Conference title this season.

Sacred Heart is coached by Rob Machan, who once served as UT coach Jerritt Elliott's volunteer assistant at USC. The Pioneers have won six straight matches.

On the Sacred Heart website, Machan was quoted as saying that, "We're a good neutral site team. Some teams are better on the road than they are at home, but we're equally as good anywhere. Texas is a different level; I think they are the favorite to win the whole thing. I think we're positioned well to put on a good performance."

Texas outside hitter Logan Eggleston is a two-time Big 12 player of the year. "We're all pumped up and ready to finish the business that we started last year," she said this week. Texas fell to Kentucky in last year's NCAA championship match.

Sacred Heart led its conference with a .237 hitting percentage, and the .184 hitting percentage allowed by the Pioneers is a top-75 mark nationally. Senior setter Sarah Ciszek is No. 2 in the country with her seven triple-doubles, the most recent of which was a 10-kill, 31-assist, 18-dig effort in the NEC championship match.

"They won their conference, it's a bigger accomplishment for them. But this first match is way more about us getting our rhythm and us playing the way that we can and just executing at a high level," Elliott said. "They obviously don't have the same athletes that we do. This is way more about coming in, being dialed in, taking care of business so we can move on to the next round. That's what our goal is right now."

The Sacred Heart-Texas match — as well as the Rice-San Diego battle that precedes it at 4 p.m. — marks the return of postseason volleyball at Gregory. Due to the pandemic, the NCAA held last season's entire tournament in Omaha, Neb. Before last season, 2003 was the last year in which Texas did not play at least one postseason match in its own gym.

"I honestly think that playing in Greg is one of the best homecourt advantages in the country," Eggleston said. "I think getting that environment back is going to be super awesome. Teams are gonna really struggle playing in here with the crowd that we have, so I'm excited."

Gregory Gym, which drew 2,824 fans for a men's basketball game on Monday night, has a capacity of 4,000. The Longhorns averaged 3,443 attendees in their home matches this season, which was the fourth-best mark in the country.

"Traditionally, we haven't been able to sell out the first two rounds and that to me has been really disappointing," Elliott said. "I think our fans, or the Texas fans, expect a lot out of us and have high expectations for all the programs here. In the tournament, we hope that they can return that and give the energy that we need."