Just in case any Texas coach wasn’t paying attention this spring, it’s worth repeating athletic director Chris Del Conte’s mission statement.
“All of our athletic programs are in the top 10 in the country and need to be competing for national championships,” Del Conte said at multiple stops this spring on the “This is Texas” tour. “That’s the benchmark going forward.”
Coaches and athletes come to Texas to compete for championships. Some thrive in this pressure cooker; others wilt. Coaches who can’t meet that standard aren’t long for this burnt-orange world. Same goes for the athletes, too, inside one of the nation’s most high-profile athletic departments.
Texas was the only Division I school to have all 20 varsity sports (100 percent) make the postseason during the 2017-18 athletic year. Internally, it’s hoped all that success serves as a springboard into this athletic year.
This is the American-Statesman’s second annual Texas Ten — a list of 10 key Longhorns athletes to watch during the 2018-19 school year. If their Texas teams are indeed to win championships as Del Conte insists, these 10 must perform at the highest level:
Lil’Jordan Humphrey, football
Last year, the football program snapped a three-year losing streak by going 7-6 and winning the Texas Bowl. Several key players are back, including quarterback Sam Ehlinger and preseason All-Big 12 picks Kris Boyd and Breckyn Hager. But this team needs a superstar, someone who truly scares defensive coordinators and gets fans out of their seats.
It could be Humphrey, a dynamic do-it-all junior from Southlake Carroll. Coach Tom Herman has reached two conclusions: Humphrey shouldn’t come off the field and he needs the ball more. Preferably as much as possible.
Whether he’s lined up out wide, in the slot or in the backfield, keep tabs on the 6-4 lightning bolt. He averaged 11.4 yards every time he touched the ball last season, no matter the capacity. Seems like a good idea to feed him more.
Lashann Higgs, women’s basketball
If you remember anything about UT women’s coach Karen Aston, know this — she loves defense. All teams can be built around defensive stoppers like Higgs, a senior who averaged 12.8 points per game last season but made the league’s all-defensive team.
A suffocating defender and a double-digit scorer? Yes, Aston will take that all season long.
On the surface, there’s a perception that UT could be down this season now that Brooke McCarty and Ariel Atkins are gone. In reality, the Longhorns should be very good again and the the center stage spotlight is wide open for Higgs, Joyner Holmes and Sug Sutton. Who wants it?
Jericho Sims, men’s basketball
If we’re measuring potential breakout Big 12 stars, Sims might be the first pick. Quiet as a church mouse last season, Sims had the luxury of spending his freshman season behind Mo Bamba. Oh, but that powerful lower body, long frame and jump-out-of-the gym ability were hard to mask.
Sims’ final stats last season weren’t necessarily eye-popping. He shot 60 percent from the floor, averaged 5.0 points and 3.9 rebounds. But this year, he moves into a starring role.
Guards Matt Coleman and Kerwin Roach will get Sims the ball. They’ll throw it up so he can throw it down. It’s possible that if Sims develops the way coaches think he might, he could be an NBA draft candidate next summer.
Micaya White, volleyball
Volleyball coach Jerritt Elliott isn’t thinking about Big 12 championships. He’s thinking NCAA titles. To get there, you’ll need some outside hitters with fluid motion and violent arm swings. Basically, you need White, a junior who led the Horns with 354 kills and 21 service aces last season.
Maybe choosing White for this list is too obvious. After all, she was the Big 12 preseason player of the year. Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani steps into a big role up front, as does Morgan Johnson. Elliott has reeled in another strong crop of freshmen, too.
White will be the lynchpin of this group. Those who have never witnessed a UT volleyball match in person at Gregory Gym are missing out.
Bianca and Anna Turati, women’s tennis
Texas’ opulent new tennis center was built to attract elite players. Not just from Texas, mind you. From all over. Turati and her twin sister, Anna, were born in Como, Italy, but like the bumper sticker says, they got here as fast as they could. To the severe misfortune of their opponents, we’re afraid.
Bianca Turati is a staggering 45-11 as a singles player over the last two seasons. She ascended to the No. 1 ITA ranking in February, becoming the first Longhorn to get there since 1995. She was 16-2 as UT’s No. 1 in team competition last season. Not to be outdone, Anna Turati was 15-1 as the team’s No. 2 player. They’re juniors.
Townley Haas, men’s swimming
The only way this Longhorn will sink is when coach Eddie Reese forces Haas to hold all his trophies in the water. Even then, it’s doubtful. You need scrolls longer than his arms to chronicle the senior’s accomplishments.
Most recently, Haas won gold at the Pan Pacific Championships in the 200-meter freestyle in Tokyo. His time of 1 minute, 45.56 got him into the 2009 World Championships. He also swam the anchor leg of the 200-meter freestyle relay, which won in 7 minutes, 4.36 seconds.
It’s to the point where Haas might be bored with collegiate swimming. He’s won a national championship every year at Texas. Assuming the count is right, Haas is up to 15 Big 12 titles and 13 All-America honors. And you can bet more are coming.
Cyera Hintzen, soccer
There was so much excitement created by the recruitment and arrival of Haley Berg last season, other players got overlooked. That was probably fine with Hintzen. But now’s the junior’s time to shine the brightest.
Hintzen led the Longhorns with 10 goals last season and five assists, both team highs. Earlier this month she was named to the MAC Hermann Trophy preseason watch list. It’s the highest award given in collegiate soccer. She’s already scored twice in this young season, including a goal against No. 4 North Carolina earlier this week as part of a 1-1 draw.
Coach Angela Kelly’s recruiting class was ranked 16th nationally. The Horns were picked third in the Big 12 preseason poll. Sounds too optimistic? Hintzen will bury those doubts in the back of the net.
John Rice, men’s track and field
Del Conte’s first major hire last June was new track coach Edrick Floréal, a lifer who spent time at Stanford and Kentucky before coming to UT. “We should be the model,” Floréal said at his introductory news conference. “I want people to say, ‘We’re going to do what Texas just did.’”
Floréal oversaw a dramatic change at Kentucky. He did it by sharpening the athletes skill set and polishing mechanics. In Rice, Floréal has the perfect student, someone who was successful in the steeplechase but can definitely go to another level. The junior finished 12th at the NCAA outdoor championships last season in addition two running the 1,500 meters.
Del Conte hopes the new coach’s nickname applies here, too. “FloKnows” improvement.
Kaitlyn Washington, softball
Del Conte’s other major hire this summer was new softball coach Mike White from Oregon. The Ducks were 435-111-1 over the last nine years as White guided them to five Pac-12 titles in the last six seasons. “Why not Texas?,” White asked upon his arrival.
If White can’t fix the offense, this program will continue to struggle. Texas hit .268 last season, the second-lowest total in the Big 12. When things did go well, it was usually because of Washington. She led the Longhorns in slugging percentage (.513 and was second in average (.359).
She made the all-freshman team in 2016 and then was a second-team All-Big 12 pick last season. The natural progression is up the ladder, assuming the Horns motor around the bases.
David Hamilton, baseball
The energy at the baseball field last season was incredible as Texas won the Big 12 title and captured NCAA regional and super regional crowns. Clemens was the power hitter, but don’t overlook his teammate up the middle.
Hamilton won the first Spike Owen defensive player of the year award for his efforts at shortstop. He was a part of 52 of the team’s 65 double plays last season, the latter figure being the fourth highest-total in the nation. This human vacuum started 62 of 63 games, and if there was a highlight-reel play to be made, Hamilton was usually there.
The Longhorns are retooling this season as key juniors shuffled off to the pros. But Hamilton, now a junior, will be there, just like he’s always been, ready to scoop it up and throw ’em out.
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The next 15
Fifteen other Longhorns to keep an eye on:
Caden Sterns, football: Freshman will get the starting nod in the season opener in the spot vacated by a Thorpe Award finalist.
Brooke Bolinger, softball: The senior went 13-7 last season on the mound with 123 strikeouts over 117.2 innings.
Logan Eggleston, volleyball: The freshman was named the MVP and best server with the U.S. Women’s Junior National team.
Courtney Ramey, men’s basketball: Coach Shaka Smart calls the freshman a “dog.” As in, one that will fight for everything.
Zach Zubia, baseball: The sophomore smashed 11 home runs last season and became a standout as the team’s DH.
Cole Hammer, men’s golf: Already among the top 20 amateurs, coach John Fields has compared the freshman to Jordan Spieth.
Kameron Fields, baseball: Fresh off a CWS appearance, the Longhorns will be looking for a new closer. Enter this sophomore.
Charli Collier, women’s basketball: The Texas Gatorade player of the year was All-Everything in high school. She’ll be a freshman.
Brionne Butler, volleyball: An experienced member of the U.S. Junior National team, the freshman should get lots of chances.
Yuya Ito, men’s tennis: An economics major from Japan, the junior was an ITA All-American last season.
Greta Isabella Voelker, women’s golf: Named the Big 12’s freshman of the year in 2017, the junior had 14 rounds at par or better in 2018.
Brennan Eagles, football: Prep All-American wide receiver ranked 8th on the American-Statesman’s Fab 55 recruiting list.
Ljiljana Josic, rowing: The Serbian-born junior rower helped the Longhorns finish a school-record 4th at the NCAAs.
Megan Rourke, women’s track: The Lake Travis product, now a sophomore, was part of the 1600 and 3200 relay teams last season.
Evie Pfeifer, women’s swimming: AU.S. Olympic trials qualifier in five events, the sophomore won three Big 12 titles, including 500 freestyle.