Close your eyes, grab a volleyball and throw it on the Gregory Gym workout track.
The ball is likely to land near a Longhorns player who last season received some American recognition. There were five, including first-team players Logan Eggleston and Brionne Butler, both now seniors.
All this talent and experience that makes Texas the favorite to compete for their third NCAA championship and second coach Jerritt Elliott, who Longhorns won all of 2012. Texas, 27-2 and national runner-up last season, is the no. 1 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason survey. The Longhorns open the season against San Diego No. 20 on Friday at 6 p.m. at Gregory Gym.
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The Longhorns are perennial candidates for the Final Four. Elliott has led them to nine Final Fours since 2008, including five appearances in the championship game. Still, he said this week that work is never made easier.
“I lose sleep to the present by stressing about how this is maintained,” Elliott said. “It’s almost easier to build than to try to sustain.”
The Longhorns, ranked fourth last season in the NCAA tournament, lost the championship game to Kentucky No. 2 by 3-1.
“We didn’t finish,” Skylar Fields said. “We talk about it every day, just to have this little reminder. We have an additional chip on our shoulders ”.
Texas made an impressive run down the road, beating No. 1 in Wisconsin, No. 5 in Nebraska and No. 13 in Penn State. Wisconsin, Kentucky and Nebraska rank second, third and fifth in the preseason poll.
Elliott expects the Longhorns to face fierce competition this season. He said many good players across the country accepted a fifth year of eligibility that the NCAA allowed because of the impact of COVID-19 on college sports.
“It’s probably the toughest field we’ll ever face,” Elliott said. “There will be very good volleyball. What a great opportunity for our girls to go in and mix it up a bit. ”
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All Longhorns return as a result, except for free Morgan O’Brien, who was transferred from graduate school last year.
The Longhorns used to be strong on the net last season, finishing third nationally with a percentage of 334. They still have Eggleston on the outside batter, Fields on the opposing batter as well as off, and Butler, Asjia O’Neal and Molly Phillips as medium blockers. Phillips has also played outside. Fields and O’Neal were an honorable mention to the All-Americans last season as sophomores.
The fields flourished during the NCAA race with 21 best season deaths against Penn State and 18 against Nebraska in their region. Eggleston expects even more improvements from his teammate.
“It’s improved immensely,” Eggleston said. “We saw a glimpse of the whole tournament of the efficiency he had on the outside, the mats he was receiving, the blocks he was making.”
Third-team American setter Jhenna Gabriel could face competition from sophomore setter Naomi Cabello, a recruiter who lost the first half of last season with an injury. Saige Ka’aha’aina-Torres, an honorable mention Pac Pac 12 player in Utah last season, announced he would move to Texas. First, though, he has to graduate to Utah this summer. Elliott contemplates alignments with two seters.
Nalani Iosia, another of last year’s top contractors, is O’Brien’s most likely replacement. Iosia played 95 of 102 sets in Texas last season.
Elliott said the Longhorns need to protect themselves so that personal ambition becomes more important than winning.
“When you’re successful (everyone), everyone wants a slightly bigger piece of the pie,” Elliott said. “Now, then, it’s about managing those personalities and making sure we put the team first, but we have a very tight team.”
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Elliott organized a typically tough conference schedule, including a game at Minnesota’s No. 7 on Sept. 1. The Longhorns face Rice at No. 23 in Houston. The Owls upset Texas in five sets last season at the Erwin Center.
The Longhorns return to Gregory Gym after a season playing under COVID-19 restrictions at the larger Erwin Center, with a limited number of fans allowed. Teams coming to Gregory include San Diego, Stanford and Notre Dame, all ranked in the 20-25 range. Texas State and Arizona, which received votes in the poll, will also find their way to Gregory.
The Big 12 has retained a programming format born of the pandemic last season. Instead of playing home and home games on the calendar, teams will meet on consecutive days at the same venue.
That means the Longhorns will face Baylor No. 10 twice at Waco. Texas beat Baylor twice at the Erwin Center last November. The Longhorns beat Baylor twice more, in Austin and Waco, in March, when the NCAA allowed the Big 12 teams to schedule additional games to prepare for a postseason tournament that moved from the fall to spring. due to the concerns of COVID-19.
“It’s almost surreal now that we can play in front of our fans at Gregory,” Elliott said. “We have players who are here now in their sophomore year and who haven’t played in front of our people, so it’s an exciting time.”