It’s not always pretty, but the Longhorns keep rolling.
Ninth-seeded Texas swept UTSA in the first round of the NCAA Volleyball Championships 25-11, 25-18, 25-15 on Friday before holding off a feisty UCLA squad 25-23, 20-25, 25-18, 26-24 on Saturday at Gregory Gym.
The latter win was the 17th in a row for the Longhorns, and propelled them into the Sweet Sixteen for the fifth-straight year. Texas will get a rematch against eighth-seeded Illinois on Friday at Gregory Gym, hoping to avenge a 3-0 home drubbing in early September. If the Longhorns advance, they will play the winner between Purdue and top-ranked Florida on Saturday.
Texas came out strong against its sister school from down Interstate Highway 35 in its tournament opener. The Longhorns’ speed and strength overwhelmed the Road Runners in the first set, who were winners of the Southland Conference Tournament. Junior middle blocker Rachael Adams paced the Longhorns with 12 kills on .588 hitting and six blocks assisted.
“I think coming out strong, getting those jitters out, starting the NCAA tournament off right is really good for us,” said senior outside hitter Juliann Faucette, who finished the night with 11 kills and five digs. “We’ve had a long week of practice having to wait for this moment.”
The match was a homecoming of sorts for UTSA head coach Laura Neugebauer-Groff, who is coaching in her first NCAA Tournament. The former Longhorn outside hitter came to the 40 Acres in 1982, the year the team joined the NCAA. She teamed up with her older sister, Sharon, to produce a formidable Longhorn frontline that finished in the top 10 in three of her four years. Neugebauer-Groff served as the team captain in 1985, and still holds records in career kills (ninth), solo blocks (fifth) and service aces (eighth).
“It was just surreal. I walked around and still recognized some people that were here when I played,” Neugebauer-Groff said. “Some of my former teammates were here too, which was very special for me. The atmosphere here is great. It’s such a wonderful place to play. I was so excited for my team just to come here to play and experience that.”
Texas’ matchup against UCLA proved to be far more arduous. The Bruins, who, despite being ranked ninth by the American Volleyball Coaches Association, were unseeded in the tournament. The Longhorns clawed out the first set before losing set two and falling behind 5-0 to start the third set.
Head coach Jerritt Elliott inserted freshman setter Hannah Allison in the match, which quickly sparked a Longhorn turnaround. With the exception of a few serves the night before against UTSA, Allison had not played in a match since getting injured in mid-October. Allison’s height allowed Texas to matchup better against the smaller UCLA, as the Longhorns strung together two six-point runs in the third set, before holding off the Bruins in a tight fourth set that featured five lead changes and 11 ties.
Elliott said putting in Allison was gutsy but paid off.
“I just felt like we got flat and I felt like she could give us a spark,” Elliott said. “We were struggling early [and] we finally got some match-ups that we wanted. We had confidence in her, and she did a
Faucette, who led the team with 17 kills in the match, said advancing in the tournament is less of a relief and more of an excitement.
“You want to play together more, and personally as a senior, I don’t want it to end unless it has to,” Faucette said. “We have a lot of hard teams ahead of us to get to where we want to be, but that’s what makes it so much sweeter every time we advance.”
Adams said the convergence of final exams and the NCAA Regionals just means the team will have to balance things like they always have.
“Our staff is really great at preparing us and getting us organized,” Adams said. “We’ve been through this before, we know how to handle it and we’re going to be really focused.”