Horns set for ‘tough regional’
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.