Lauren Dickson

KANSAS CITY — With Texas losing its rematch to Penn State as well as seniors Juliann Faucette, Jennifer Doris and Lauren Dickson to graduation, with the former two being the winningest players in program history, Thursday's end to the season may feel unsatisfying to some fans.

Fortunately for the Longhorns, the future is filled with promise and potential.

Texas returns 12 members of this year’s Final Four team and welcomes three of the nation’s top recruits next fall. More importantly, the time off gives the slew of injured Longhorns time to heal and be ready for the 2011 season.

Outside hitter Amber Roberson, middle blocker Rachael Adams and setter Michelle Kocher will return for their senior years, with the trio having been to the Final Four every year in Austin. Freshmen setter Hannah Allison and libero Sarah Palmer both gained valuable experience on the big stage, not to mention sophomore utility player Sha’Dare McNeal, whose athleticism and development in the backcourt were crucial for the Longhorns.

Texas will also welcome back junior libero Sydeny Yogi, sophomore outside hitter Bailey Webster, freshman outside hitter Ashley Bannister and sophomore defensive specialist Cristina Arenas from injuries.

With the addition of incoming freshmen Haley Eckerman, Katherine Bell and Madelyn Hutson, head coach Jerritt Elliott will have plenty of depth — not to mention difficult coaching decisions.

Elliott implied Texas might opt for a 6-2 rotation next season, which was what the Longhorns used in their run to the 2009 national championship game. The 6-2 utilizes two setters and six hitters, while typically rotating out the backline with the libero and defensive specialists.

However, Texas will have to replace the leadership of Faucette and Doris. Faucette earned All-American honors in three of her years, including first-team this year, leaves with the fifth-most kills in program history. Doris finished in the top 15 in all-time block assists and total blocks, while garnering Big 12 Academic honors every year.

“Looking at them, you learn how to take control of a team at a certain time,” Roberson said. “There will be young players and they’ll be looking up to you, and you have to be ready to step to that.”

Considering Texas’ 5-4 start to the season, many doubted the ninth-seeded Longhorns could even make it this far.

“I’m proud of our team for getting to this point and they’re going to be very good next year so I’m excited to watch them,” Doris said. “I’ll be one of the Longhorns texting Jerritt 'good luck' as they hopefully get back to the Final Four.”

Despite the returning players, there is a lot of work to do.

“Every year it’s going back and rewriting the book, but every year, my management skills are less and less because of the quality of women they’ve been able to establish over the years,” Elliott said. “We’re going to get back here and we’re getting close to cracking this. We just need to keep getting back and keep getting the opportunities to do that."

"But again, with that being said, we have big players and the culture will change dramatically," he added, "and we have to teach them as a family what it means to be a Texas Longhorn and to represent this University."
 

The Longhorn’s season-long injury problems were enough for the selection committee to pin the team with a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament, citing a lack of depth.

But having a player like senior outside hitter Lauren Dickson on the roster makes depth less of a pressing concern for the Horns.

While the fifth-year senior’s volleyball journey has been anything but conventional, her ability to step onto the court and perform at a moment’s notice may be crucial to the team’s success in the playoffs.

“It’s critical,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “We’ve had so many injuries, and Lauren has a really good volleyball IQ. She brings a lot of knowledge to the court, and she’s a nice player.”

Dickson arrived on the 40 Acres after four illustrious years at the University of Virginia, where she was the team’s captain and MVP her senior year. After graduating with a business degree, she was accepted into UT’s top-ranked Masters in Professional Accounting program. Because of an ankle injury during her sophomore year, Dickson was granted a medical redshirt waiver — something she had originally not planned to use. But after a request from Elliott and some paperwork, Dickson was suddenly donning burnt orange.

For most of the season, Dickson has been used primarily as a serving specialist, subbing in for one play per rotation. She said she has had fun trying to find a new role, while still competing every day in practice.

“Learning a new role is sometimes challenging, but it’s been good to try to figure out how I can contribute to the team differently than I may have contributed to my Virginia team,” Dickson said. “[At the same time], I try not to get comfortable in a certain role because I don’t want to be satisfied with what I have. It’s important to always be pushing and trying to improve your game, which improves the team.”

Dickson’s work in practice paid off, as she was thrust into the regular rotation after an injury to junior outside hitter Amber Roberson, starting matches against Baylor, Texas Tech and Kansas.

She posted an eight-kill, 11-dig effort against the Red Raiders and put together 15 digs against the Bears; just one short of her career high.

Senior middle blocker Jennifer Doris, who played on a high-performance club team with Dickson once in high school, said Dickson’s experience and defense have been a boon for the team.

“Lauren’s a great player,” Doris said. “At Texas we say you never know when your number is going to be called, and for her to step up means a lot to us.”

Being a graduate student-athlete has its own challenges, as Dickson has to balance playing for a top-10 team in the country with finding a job — which sometimes means running from practice to a recruiting event. She said Elliott has been flexible, and she feels many of her skills on the court will pay off in the corporate world as an auditor.

“I think [recruiters] like seeing you’re an athlete,” Dickson said. “A huge thing is time management and being able to handle everything. [Also] you’re working in teams so they like to see that they know how to work with people, and hopefully once I start, those skills will transfer over.”

Despite being the oldest player on the team, Dickson said she relates well with the freshmen, as she’s both a new face on the team but also has a past experience of being away from home. An Austin native, Dickson still holds records at local volleyball powerhouse Westlake High School.

She said while she misses some aspects of Virginia — such as having four distinct seasons — she’s glad to be back.

“I go home every Sunday and do laundry and just kind of hang out with my parents,” Dickson said. “It’s definitely good to be home.”

Although outside hitter Amber Roberson missed a mere two games, she came out of the gate playing like she missed none while displaying an urgency of someone who had missed 20.

The 6-foot-2 junior from San Antonio notched five kills in the first set on perfect hitting while adding three digs in the process. She finished the match with nine kills to go along with seven digs and two blocks before heading to the bench in the third set to cheer on her teammates.

Roberson, the team’s second-leading scorer, put her offensive arsenal on full display, including signature spikes from the backcourt and carefully placed top-spinning kills that nick the opponent’s back line. Head coach Jerritt Elliott said Roberson’s return allows the team to maintain an offensive balance.

“[Opponents] can’t stack up on the players, and in terms of blocking schemes, it’s difficult [for them],” Elliott said. “We’re also able to use her out of the backcourt. She has great speed and velocity and she [puts] a lot of stress on the opponent.”

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Roberson’s return is senior outside hitter Juliann Faucette, who had shouldered much of the offensive burden in Roberson’s absence.

“She’s a great player and she did really well tonight, especially not having her for the last two matches,” Faucette said. “We just have a lot of weapons and that helps. Amber’s a weapon we can put out there and she can put up big numbers for us.”

In Roberson’s absence, senior outside hitter Lauren Dickson was asked to step in. Dickson played four years at the University of Virginia and came to Texas to pursue a masters in accounting from the McCombs School of Business. Because of an injury her sophomore year, the Westlake High School product was granted a medical redshirt and retained an extra year of eligibility.

Dickson’s back line defensive presence has been a big boon for the Longhorns through the last two games, as she has posted double digit digs in both matches. Dickson played as a serving specialist through most of Wednesday’s match, though playing extensively in the third set.

Elliott said Dickson’s role could change and said he was pleased with her ability to step up.

“Every day, any player’s role can change and that’s developed in the practice gym,” Elliott said. “She’s been playing really well and we’ve been utilizing her a little more and she’s been able to show us a little more during matches.”

For Juliann Faucette and the Longhorns, the hits just keep on coming.

The senior outside hitter racked up 24 kills Saturday as Texas rolled 3-1 over Texas Tech on the road to extend the Longhorns’ winning streak to 11 games.

It was Faucette’s third straight contest with at least 24 kills, and she has found a rhythm as Texas (19-5, 14-2 Big 12) enters the final stretch of the regular season.

Senior middle blocker Jen Doris and sophomore opposite hitter Sha’Dare McNeal each got in on the action with 11 kills apiece and senior outside hitter Lauren Dickson had her best game in a Longhorn uniform with eight kills and 11 digs.

McNeal and Dickson carried the Longhorns in the fourth and final set with four kills each. A Dickson kill forced set point, and McNeal put the game in the books with the last kill of the night as Texas closed out struggling Texas Tech 25-16 to wrap up the match.

Texas stormed out to an early lead in the first, thanks to a couple of early kills from Faucette and a pair by Doris during a 7-1 run that put the Longhorns out in front for good as the team opened the match with a 25-12 win.
But the Red Raiders (3-23, 1-16) rallied in the second to tie the contest as it pulled away from the Longhorns late 25-22 and overcame eight kills by Faucette.

After the break, Texas regrouped and regained the lead with a hard-fought third set. Faucette broke out with four straight kills to stretch the lead to 21-12 after McNeal got the Longhorns going with an ace and two kills during a 7-1 rally that put Texas ahead by eight. The Red Raiders came as close as 24-20, but Faucette put an end to the set with her eighth kill of the frame to give Texas the 25-20 win.

It was the Longhorns’ 20th straight win over the Red Raiders and Texas’ 14th win of its last 15 matches.

It’s been the opposite for Texas Tech this year as the Red Raiders’ latest loss was its 11th in a row.

Texas sits behind Nebraska in the Big 12 standings and is a game-and-a-half behind the Cornhuskers with four contests left on the slate.