Horns set for ‘tough re­gional’

Bohls

Austin American-Statesman - - C SPORTS - Con­tin­ued from C RI­CARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

next week’s Fi­nal Four in Louisville, Web­ster and Ha­ley Eck­er­man — last year’s and this year’s Big 12 play­ers of the year — will lit­er­ally be front and cen­ter. They’re two of the best out­side hit­ters in col­lege vol­ley­ball.

But Texas’ abil­ity to move be­yond the Austin Re­gional could also de­pend largely upon the bal­ance that El­liott’s team cre­ates be­tween clutch play and a re­laxed, noth­ing-to-lose at­ti­tude. He likes their cur­rent po­si­tion as an emo­tion­ally sta­ble team that has won 19 of its last 20 matches and takes on 14th-seeded Florida at Gre­gory Gym Fri­day night.

“This is a very tough re­gional, but the team is in a good spot right now,” El­liott said. “Are there go­ing to be nerves? Ab­so­lutely. But this team has been de­ter­mined since last year and has earned the right to be where we are.”

The Longhorns haven’t yet be­come the Buf­falo Bills of col­lege vol­ley­ball, but they have had trou­ble get­ting over the hump on the big stage af­ter spec- tac­u­lar reg­u­lar sea­sons.

They haven’t pro­duced a na­tional cham­pi­onship in the sport since their only NCAA ti­tle in 1988, which cu­ri­ously enough came un­der col­or­ful, out­spo­ken head coach Mick Ha­ley, who left and won a pair of na­tional ti­tles at USC. El­liott coached un­der Ha­ley there be­fore ar­riv­ing in Austin and tak­ing the pro­gram to a high level although he has yet to break through.

The Longhorns adopted a the-time-is-now motto for this sea­son: “It’s on.” El­liott came up with the oblig­a­tory black plas­tic wrist­bands to re­in­force the premise af­ter con­stantly coming up short.

“We kind of had light bulbs as a theme,” libero Sarah Palmer said. “When­ever we played or prac­ticed or lifted weights, we gave 100 per­cent and wanted to be the best we can be.”

A year ago, ex­pec­ta­tions soared for Texas as it en­tered the NCAA tour­na­ment as a No. 1 seed, but stum­bled against even­tual na­tional cham­pion UCLA. The Longhorns played ten­ta­tively but also had trou­ble re­group­ing af­ter a late-night vic­tory over host Ken­tucky and then fell to the Bru­ins.

“We didn’t re­spond de­fen­sively,” Palmer said.

“We played a very emo­tional match against Ken­tucky and were the first match the next day,” El­liott said. “We were play­ing on very lit­tle sleep in an al­most empty gym, but that wasn’t the rea­son we lost. We had plenty of time to get or­ga­nized, but it was a really tough sit­u­a­tion.”

The dev­as­tat­ing loss has served to fuel the Longhorns this sea­son. With the help of tal­ented fresh­men like Molly Cage and the re­turn of a healthy mid­dle blocker Khat Bell, a veteran Texas club won the Big 12 for the fifth time in six years and put to­gether a 17match win streak. The string was snapped in the reg­u­lar-sea­son fi­nale by Iowa State, a strong team that ad­vanced past the first two rounds and tack­les sec­ond-seeded Stan­ford this week and the only other Big 12 team that sur­vived the open­ing week­end.

“It opened our eyes,” Palmer said. “It showed us we’re not in­vin­ci­ble and teams can get to us.”

The Longhorns have won 19 of their last 20 matches and hope to erase the me­mory of last year’s NCAA tour­na­ment loss to UCLA.

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