For the second straight season, the Texas volleyball team fell one game short of its ultimate goal — a national title.
At the NCAA semifinal round, tournament Cinderella team BYU dominated Texas in the first two sets, and Texas couldn’t quite pull off a much-needed comeback, falling in four sets.
“[Our players] gave us a chance to get back, and I’m just really proud of what this team has accomplished this year and what Khat Bell and Haley [Eckerman] have done for this program,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said after the Dec. 18 loss. “And it’s always hard when you’re not ending the season with a ‘W.’”
Now, as the spring semester begins, the Longhorns’ main tasks will be maintaining the momentum built up by another deep postseason run and replacing two very key players: graduating seniors Bell and Eckerman.
During her time at Texas, Eckerman maintained a notable presence in Gregory Gym and across the nation with her massive jump serve and one of the hardest hits in the country. Where Eckerman led, the team followed. In the regional final against North Carolina, the Longhorns struggled in the second set, as the Tar Heels’ triple-block approach against Eckerman held her to only two kills and one attack error. North Carolina won the set, 25-18. But Eckerman led Texas back with four kills in the third set and five kills and an ace in the fourth set to close out the win.
Finding a new leader to fill Eckerman’s shoes won’t be easy.
Going into next season, Texas will also need to find a way to replace Bell’s emotional leadership. Although her stats don’t jump off the page like Eckerman’s, Bell was the heart and soul of the team. When she wasn’t on the court, she could be seen pumping up her teammates on the sideline — especially when the Longhorns won key points.
Of course, when it comes to replacing these players, Texas still has a wide range of options. Throughout the season, Elliott called this team the deepest he’s ever had, and many skilled players, who would be starters on other teams, didn’t really get a chance to see the court on a consistent basis.
Freshman libero Cat McCoy, who rarely played as though she was a freshman, is returning to the team. McCoy ended the year leading the team with 394 digs and 16 reception errors and became the defensive leader for the Longhorns’ back row.
Both setters — redshirt sophomore Nicole Dalton and true sophomore Chloe Collins — will return, giving Elliott the option of once again running the two-setter system he used this year. And sophomore middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu, who was unstoppable at times through the middle, will come back after landing on the NCAA Division I All-Tournament team.
Texas will undoubtedly return next season as the favorite in the Big 12, a popular pick to make it to the semifinals and a contender for a national championship. Between now and the start of the 2015 season, the Longhorns’ main task will be to configure a new winning strategy.
“That’s what you do,” Elliott said. “You pick up the pieces and build a new puzzle and try to figure it out again. That’s the fun part.”