Texas’ 2018 campaign was just over 24 hours old when head coach Jerritt Elliott and his team faced a season-defining moment.
The No. 3 Longhorns found themselves in a less than ideal situation on Saturday night as they fell down 9-5 in the fifth set with No. 7 Florida. The highly anticipated top-10 heavyweight matchup lived up to expectations as both squads took two sets to force the deciding fifth set.
But the Longhorns found themselves in a four-point hole, which should have been detrimental in a first-to-15 set.
Then, Texas strung together a point. Then another, and one more after that, to cut the Gator lead to 9-8.
“We tried to stay calm and focus on the next play,” sophomore setter Ashley Shook said. “We don’t want to think about the last one’s that we’ve lost or that we’ve gained. We just want to focus on the next play.”
The Longhorn run wasn’t even close to being done. They eventually took a 11-10 lead, their first lead of the set, and never looked back. Texas proceeded to win four straight points to lock up the 15-10 win, capping off a 10-1 run to polish off the comeback to take down Florida, 3-2 (25-18, 21-25, 21-25, 25-21,15-10).
Junior outside hitter Micaya White led the Texas squad with 17 kills, 14 digs and four blocks while freshman Katarina Luketic also contributed with 14 kills and eight blocks.
Shook gave the team 14 digs and had 47 assists, five blocks and three kills for Texas’ second-straight win over a ranked opponent at the VERT Challenge in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“We just battled together really well,” Shook said. “We’ve gone through a lot of adversity already from the people that have been here, and the freshmen have bought in so well. It’s just sticking to our routines and with our system and trusting each other. That’s the biggest thing.”
In the first set, Texas jumped out to an early lead against the Gators, winning the first set 25-18 while displaying a disciple and team-oriented style of play. The team looked hot and ready to dominate.
However, that heat quickly cooled over the next two sets. The Gators took advantage of Longhorn mistakes and won the second set 25-21, evening the series. In the pivotal third set, Florida took control at the end, pulling away to another 25-21 set win.
The comeback began in the fourth set, with the team needing to pull off two-straight set wins in order to steal away the victory. The fourth set went back and forth before the Longhorns clamped down and took the lead at 19-18, going on to win the set, 25-21.
While the team was far from perfect during the entire game, they were able to claw their way to another big-time victory, this time over a top-10 opponent.
Things won’t get any easier for this Longhorn squad, though. Texas has one of the hardest non-conference schedules in the NCAA this season, playing six teams in the top 18 within their first eight matches. Saturday’s game against the highly ranked Gators set the tone for the team moving forward against ranked competition.
“It’s so important,” Shook said. “We really focused on trusting each other a lot and I think when we play teams that are close to the same level as us and compete well it really pushes us to work together even more.”
Texas will get another opportunity to play a squad at their level when the Longhorns face No. 9 Wisconsin in a third-consecutive game against a ranked opponent.
“I think right now we’re just focusing on getting better one day at a time,” Shook said. “We’re going to watch video after this to see where we can improve on and then implementing that in practice.”
The battle between No. 3 Texas and No. 9 Wisconsin is set for Sept. 1 at 7 p.m. in Madison, Wisconsin.