As head coach Jerritt Elliott enters his 12th season with Texas, the mission remains the same as it is every year: contend for the conference and national titles. Since 2008, Elliott has led the Longhorns to a 110-17 record, including just six conference losses. With the talent that Elliott has on hand after minor attrition this offseason, and a star-studded recruiting class ranked No. 2 in the country, there’s no denying Texas has a legitimate shot at the national title in 2012. Nine letter winners return from last season, and four of the nation’s top 20 high school seniors set to join the team and strengthen an already impressive group of athletes.
This year, Elliott has wrangled two more former U.S. Youth National team members in Nicole Dalton and Molly McCage.
McCage, a 6-foot-3 middle blocker from Klein Collins High School, is rated as the No. 1 incoming freshman in the nation by Prep Volleyball. McCage adds depth to a position that needs just that. A year ago freshman Khat Bell, the team’s starting middle blocker, was quite a force to be reckoned with before she went down with a season-ending knee injury during conference play. McCage will serve as a great backup option to Bell, although it may not take long for the two to compete for playing time, with Bell nearing a full recovery.
“We are excited about Molly,” said Elliott. “She is a very physical athlete, very fast off the floor with a good arm. I think she has the potential to be a great middle blocker in terms of her attacking and blocking abilities, along with her speed. She competes at a very high level and will get after it from day one. We are excited about her. I think she has a lot of room for improvement, which says a lot about where she can end up.”
Sara Hattis, a 6-foot-4 middle blocker from Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho, N.M., will also compete with Bell and McCage in the middle. A dual-sport athlete in high school, Hattis was also rated among the nation’s top 100 basketball recruits before choosing to play volleyball at Texas. After playing club volleyball for three months, she led Cleveland to a state runner-up finish in her senior season.
“We are fortunate that she chose volleyball over basketball,” said Elliott. “We have seen a great amount of improvement this year and we are excited to get her in the gym. She has big hands, plays long and has a quick arm swing. In time, she is going to be special. She is a big-time player. She can potentially be the best blocker in this class.”
Maybe the most esteemed of the five incoming freshmen is Nicole Dalton, a 6-foot-2 outside hitter from Chaparral High School in Parker, Colo. Dalton was a teammate of McCage on the 2011 U.S. Youth National Team that competed in the FIVB Girls’ Youth World Championship in Turkey. She was named Colorado’s Volleyball Player of the Year twice (2010-2011), and leading her Front Range AAU team to a bronze medal at the AAU Championships in 2011. Ranked No. 6 in the nation by Prep Volleyball, Dalton is another rangy player that could make an impact sooner rather than later in her collegiate career.
“Cole has the skill set to set and play right side in our program,” said Elliott. “I’m excited on what Cole brings to the table with her setting, ball control, leadership and competitive desire to win.”
Rounding out this year’s recruiting class are two players that are smaller in stature than their future teammates, but have a chance to make just as much of an impact.
Amy Neal and Kat Brooks both play libero, and will back up junior Sarah Palmer, who has been nothing short of an expert at the position as a Longhorn.
Brooks stands at 5-foot-3 and hails from Honolulu, Hawaii, just a stone’s throw from Palmer’s hometown of Kailua. Elliott has shown a fondness for Hawaiian liberos in recent years, with former Longhorn Sydney Yogi also coming from the Honolulu area. Brooks brings the same skills that have made Yogi and Palmer some of the most recognizable and successful liberos in Texas history.
“Kat is a little under-sized, but she has a huge heart and competes well,” said Elliott. “What I like about her is that she is extremely feisty. She is outspoken in a positive way and I don’t think she is going to take a backseat to anyone. She is going to get out there and push from day one. She passes well and plays good defense. I think she will grind it out on a daily basis and we are excited to have her in our gym.”
The final piece of what could be one of the country’s most balanced teams is the 5-foot-10 Neal, who spent her high school days playing at nearby Lake Travis High School. Rated as the No. 18 recruit nationally, Neal led the Cavaliers to a perfect 50-0 record last year, as well as being named the 2011 Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year for the state of Texas.
“[Amy] is a dynamic athlete and can hurt you in many areas,” said Elliott. “Amy’s ball control is what we are really excited about. She can be a very good passer at this level. If she is able to grasp the mentality part of that position, then she is one that will really push for some starting time based on what we have seen and how well she has performed in the back row. Amy is a great addition to this program.”
Overall, Elliott has more than enough talent and experience to engineer another postseason run, but as always it will be about how the team performs late in the year when the games matter most. Elliott has never had a problem reaching the postseason, or even winning games once there, but it’s now up to him and the team to get over the hump and win a national championship. With what Elliott has done in his tenure, and the history that surrounds the Texas volleyball program, a national title should never again go uncontested by the Longhorns.