Stage is set for a tro­phy Horns can dig

Texas, long on the elite level, is ea­ger to shed that also-ran la­bel.

Austin American-Statesman - - C SPORTS - A sea­son-by-sea­son look at Jer­ritt El­liott’s record at Texas, C STATES­MAN WHO MADE THE CUT? C


the Oct. 8 reg­u­lar-sea­son match in Louisville had spe­cial mean­ing.

It wasn’t be­cause Jer­ritt El­liott’s Longhorns had some great ri­valry with the Car­di­nals. El­liott ar­ranged that match in the 22,000-seat KFC Yum Cen­ter be­cause it’s the venue for this year’s Fi­nal Four.

He was cor­rect to plan ahead, be­cause his Texas vol­ley­ball teams have been among the most con­sis­tent in the coun­try. At most schools, he would be cel­e­brated for that con­sis­tency. But Texas isn’t most schools. At Texas, cham­pi­onships are cel­e­brated and run­ners-up are merely de­bated.

El­liott has most of the cre­den­tials that mat­ter. Eight con­sec­u­tive Elite Eights. Four Fi­nal Fours now, over the past five sea­sons. And a bevy of Al­lAmer­i­cans who have come through his pro­gram. But there’s one thing miss­ing: a na­tional cham­pi­onship.

Three times in the pre­vi­ous four years, the Longhorns made it to the Fi­nal Four. And three times they re­turned to Austin with­out the hard­ware. That mon­key on his back is get­ting heav­ier.

“How many times do you have to go to a Fi­nal Four be­fore it goes from a mon­key to a go­rilla?” El­liott asked re­porters Mon­day.

There are no guar­an­tees of mak­ing it to the na­tional semi­fi­nals year in and year out, and El­liott’s play­ers fully un­der­stand the stakes. They also know how much a cham­pi­onship would mean to their head coach, who has been de­nied a ti­tle time and time again.

“I think it’s pretty big for him,” said mid­dle blocker

The Al­lCen­tex Vol­ley­ball Team,

A list of this sea­son’s all-district se­lec­tions,

Khat Bell. “He ex­pects a lot out of us, and that’s to per­form as much as he liked to coach us the en­tire sea­son. We’re go­ing in with our heads level be­cause we’ve worked our butts off the en­tire sea­son.”

Texas (27-4) has breezed through the NCAA tour­na­ment and has lost only one set en route to this week’s Fi­nal Four. There is enough ex­pe­ri­ence on this club to be­lieve, once again, that this could be the year. The No. 3-seeded Horns will be fa­vored to beat first­time na­tional semi­fi­nal­ist Michi­gan to ad­vance to the fi­nals against ei­ther top-seeded Penn State or Ore­gon.

But will the week­end in Louisville be one of first-time cel­e­bra­tion or fa­mil­iar frus­tra­tion? El­liott fol­lows sports and knows he’s not the first coach to strug­gle be­fore fi­nally break­ing through to win it all. He iden­ti­fies with bas­ket­ball’s Roy Wil­liams, who coached Kansas to four Fi­nal Fours, fall­ing short each time be­fore even­tu­ally win­ning two ti­tles at North Carolina.

There’s some­thing to be said for get­ting there, even on a ti­tle-hun­gry cam­pus that views cham­pi­onships as a true mark of success.

I asked El­liott if the ac­com­plish­ment of con­sis­tently mak­ing it to Fi­nal Fours and Elite Eights can some­times be over­looked in the quest for na­tional cham­pi­onships.

“It’s a great point,” he said. “I wish the me­dia would fo­cus on that some­times.”

At the same time, he un­der­stands the dif­fer­ence be­tween be­ing really good and be­ing great. Un­til El­liott wins a ti­tle, he will be con­sid­ered a really good coach.

“Ob­vi­ously, you want to win, but you’ve got to take some re­flec­tion about watch­ing your women grow and de­vel­op­ing into con­fi­dent young women, learn­ing how to com­mu­ni­cate and be­ing happy in who they are,” he said. “That’s what we’re here for, ul­ti­mately.

“Yes, the wins and losses — that’s why we’re here at Texas, ob­vi­ously— but you look at what the big scope and what the im­por­tant pic­ture on this is.”

Texas has come oh so close to bring­ing it home on sev­eral oc­ca­sions, par­tic­u­larly the 2009 club, which had un­beaten Penn State down two sets to none. Alas, the Horns couldn’t hold the lead, and the Nit­tany Lions roared back to win in five. Los­ing 15-13 in the fifth set that night in Tampa — that’s the one moment that gets the most re­plays in El­liott’s mind.

“Ob­vi­ously, you think about it be­cause you want to learn from those ex­pe­ri­ences,” he said. “I’ve thought about it in the past, but it has no bear­ing on what we’re do­ing now. It’s a dif­fer­ent team. And we’ll be pre­pared.”

The one thing a coach must do is not tweak a process too much when a pro­gram gets so close to win­ning. Aside from mov­ing the team to a ho­tel closer to the tour­na­ment venue, El­liott has stuck with ba­si­cally the same sched­ule as past Fi­nal Fours. His team is com­fort­able with the ex­pec­ta­tions and won’t be over­whelmed by the moment. Af­ter a huge win over USC in the re­gional fi­nal, the cel­e­bra­tion was tame. Just hugs and high fives. They know the mis­sion is far from over.

“They’re sick of get­ting there and not win­ning,” El­liott said.

Get­ting there may be half the fun, but El­liott knows it’s no longer fun to come back emp­ty­handed. It’s time to take the next step and win one.

Cedric Golden

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