The Longhorns have won 17 matches in a row, toppled ranked opponents in Nebraska, UCLA and Iowa State and have not lost at home since Sept. 3.
Yet somehow, fans remain a little reluctant to pack Gregory Gym.
The Longhorns’ average attendance through the season was 2,483 fans per home game, down from the 3,035 fans per game last year and 2,502 from 2007. The team’s only sold-out crowd was the last game of the season against Texas A&M. In comparison, Nebraska, which was second behind Hawaii in average attendance last year, sells out almost a game per week.
“It’s going to be a great regional,” said head coach Jerritt Elliott after the team’s victory over UCLA on Saturday. “I’m a little disappointed by the attendance tonight. Obviously, we’d like to sell this place out and we’ve done that through the years.”
Part of the lower sales this year can be attributed to the team’s slow start. Texas is seeded ninth in the tournament though ranked sixth by the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll. Last year, the team was favored to make the NCAA Championships from the beginning of the season.
Saturday’s second round playoff game had an abysmal turnout of 1,963 in the 4,000-seat Gregory Gym, despite moderate student turnout. UCLA head coach Mike Sealy admitted the noise may have gotten to some of his younger players, especially when Texas went on two six-point runs in the third set.
With the NCAA Regionals in Austin, the team could use help from the crowd as it faces eighth-seeded Illinois on Friday and could face top-seeded Florida on Saturday.
“We need the city of Austin to come out and support us. We’ve got to have a big crowd,” Elliott said. “It’s going to be some fun volleyball. We need to pack this place and represent the University of Texas well.
A tale of two setters
One could make the argument that the biggest battle for setters Hannah Allison and Michelle Kocher happens in the practice gym.
The duo, while constantly competing for a starting spot, remains forever supportive of each other. Allison, a freshman from Siloam Springs, Ark., is the taller and more athletic of the two, making her one of the best blocking setters the Longhorns have had in several years. Kocher, a junior from Wheaton, Ill., and the team’s assistant co-captain, is the more experienced and fundamentally sound. She is also a better backline player, consistently putting up near double-digit digs.
Allison won the starting spot to begin the season but went down with an ankle injury in mid-October. Kocher stepped in, and the team has not lost since.
The UCLA match featured a little bit of both setters. Elliott inserted Allison in the game in the third set, which almost immediately sparked a turnaround. Elliott described Allison as a “gamer” whose competitiveness brings the best out of her in tight situations.
Meanwhile, Kocher’s technical proficiency and high IQ allows her to make the most out of errant passes on a team that has struggled in that area. Both setters finished with 24 assists in the match.
Assistant coach Salima Rockwell, who was an All-American setter back in her playing days at Penn State and on the U.S. National Team, said having both setters is a major boon for the team.
“I think it’s awesome,” Rockwell said. “They constantly push each other, and both sides of the net in practice are really good. It’s a huge advantage for our program on having two great setters in any given point. One can sub in for the other. We could flip into a 6-2. It just gives us so many options.”
In the press conference following his team’s loss to Texas on Saturday, UCLA head coach Mike Sealy pointed to Texas’ ball control as a weaker point in the Longhorns’ arsenal.
Elliott has repeatedly said improved passing, the serve-receive game and confidence are the biggest differences between the beginning of the year and now.
Texas’ weakness likely has less to do with inability and more to do with a lack of experience. True freshman libero Sarah Palmer was thrust into the fire after junior Sydney Yogi’s injury. Palmer, who was just coming off of an injury herself when she started donning the black jersey, has had to learn a lot on the job.
Sophomore utility player Sha’Dare McNeal and junior Amber Roberson are both first-time starters. McNeal was converted from a middle blocker to a backline player over the spring. Both players had relatively little back row experience before coming to Texas.
While passing and ball control have not cost the Longhorns a match, it may prove to be a challenge against more physical teams such as Nebraska in the coming matches.
The year of the ACL
While studies show that female athletes are eight times more likely to injure their ACL than male athletes and knee injuries are the second most common type of injury in volleyball, the unprecedented number of ACL tears in this year’s volleyball season has coaches scrapping playbooks, scratching heads and re-adjusting.
The trend started in the spring when Penn State lost its sophomore outside hitter phenom Darcy Dorton. The Longhorns lost sophomore outside hitter and assistant co-captain Bailey Webster a little more than a week before the season started.
Among Texas’ opponents, UCLA lost junior middle blocker Katie Camp last month and Illinois lost freshman middle blocker Anna Dorn at the beginning of the season. Perhaps the bigger concern for the Illini is the loss of senior All-American outside hitter Laura DeBruler in mid-October, who torched the Longhorns for 17 kills in their earlier matchup.
Other teams in the tournament that have had to make adjustments for ACL tears include Creighton, Mississippi and North Carolina.
As the Longhorns prepare to battle it out against Illinois on Friday, they will need to find a way to slow down the Fighting Illini’s junior outside hitter Colleen Ward. Ward has taken over the reins of the team and put up 27 kills and 15 digs in the team’s second round matchup against Cincinnati.
Kocher knows that better than anyone, teaming up with Ward on a club team when the two were in high school.
“[Ward] is a really talented player,” Kocher said earlier this year. “I loved playing with her the couple of years I got a chance to, and I played against her in high school, so I know what it feels like to receive one of her hits. She’s just an all-around player and I’m excited to see how she does.”
Three conferences dominate the Sweet 16. The Pac-10 has four representatives in Stanford, USC, Cal and Washington. The Big 12 is also surprisingly well represented with Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Missouri all advancing.
The Big Ten wins the power conference award, as it boasts Penn State, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio State and Purdue. The final two teams are Florida (SEC) and Duke (ACC).