Last year, the Longhorns were stunned.
They started postseason play as the top-ranked contender for the NCAA crown and were led by a senior class that was one of the winningest in program history. But a performance — riddled with errors and net violations — against eventual champion UCLA stopped the Longhorns short. They were sent home without reaching the Final Four for the first time since they fell in the regional round to USC in 2007.
This year, the No. 3 Longhorns are poised to make another deep run in postseason play. Home court advantage, a desirable tournament seed and a successful regular season are all advantages that the Longhorns will take to the court tonight.
“The biggest thing was just that anyone can show up on a given night and we have to battle,” sophomore Haley Eckerman said of what they learned from last year’s tournament. “We are just going to have to play together and battle together.”
The Longhorns will open up the tournament at home Thursday at 7 p.m. against Colgate University as the No. 3 overall seed out of a field of 64. As one of the Top 16 seeds, Texas will host the first and second rounds of the tournament. Two years ago, the Longhorns received the bid to host the third and fourth rounds of the tournament. If all goes well, the Longhorns will only need to travel for the Final Four and Championship games in Louisville, Ky.
Colgate University, a liberal arts college in New York, won the Patriot League with a season record of 17-13 and a conference record of 12-2. The real fun starts if the Longhorns defeat Colgate and advance to the second round.
The Longhorns could face rival Texas A&M in the second round of the tournament Friday night. Texas A&M will face North Carolina State in the first round of the Austin Regional on Thursday afternoon. The winner will face either Texas or Colgate in round two.
“We are always excited to play Texas A&M,” junior setter Hannah Allison said. “We don’t want to look ahead, but if we do come across them, we are very excited
The Longhorns were one win away from a perfect conference season but fell to Iowa State on the road in five sets to finish off the regular season and end with a conference record of 15-1. Instead of feeling concerned with the loss so late in the season, the Longhorns are more relieved and determined to enter the NCAA tournament strong and focused.
“Going undefeated the whole time kind of was an advantage, obviously,” Eckerman said. “But it was not helping us be able to play and experience adversity. Playing in an environment like that was how the Yum! Center is going to be. With this game, we’ve learned so much.”
Texas finished the season with a 23-4 overall record and a 15-1 conference record. Its only losses came to very solid teams, including Penn State, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. The Longhorns are fortunate in that they would not have to face the Nittany Lions until the championship match.
Eckerman claimed the Big 12 Player of the Year Award, the fourth consecutive time the honor has gone to a Longhorn. Eckerman led the Big 12 in points per game (5.24) and kills per game (4.60) in conference play. She is also in the running for National Player of the Year .
Eckerman, junior Bailey Webster, sophomore Khat Bell and senior Sha’Dare McNeal were all named to the All-Big 12 First Team. Freshman Molly McCage, the national No. 1 recruit, was named to the Big 12 All-Freshman team.
“The team is hungry,” Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “They’vae been waiting to get to this NCAA tournament, they’ll be playing well.”
Printed on Thursday, November 29, 2012 as: Postseason sees stakes raise