Molly McCage

Junior middle blocker Molly McCage, who leads the Longhorns in blocks with 1.31 per set, is ready for Oklahoma.

Photo Credit: Daulton Venglar | Daily Texan Staff

The Red River Showdown will make its way to the volleyball court Saturday, as No. 2 Texas (15-0, 7-0 Big 12) takes on archrival Oklahoma (14-6, 5-2 Big 12).

While it may not get the same attention as the football side of the rivalry, junior middle blocker Molly McCage expects the game to be just as intense.

“I actually know some of the [Oklahoma] girls, so it’s more fun,” McCage said. “[There’s] smack-talk back and forth; it’s not anything super meaningful. But I love the rivalry between us still. I love that the fans are super supportive behind us and everything. It’s a more emotional and entertaining game.”

The fans will play an important role, as the Longhorns will play in front of a sold-out home crowd for the first time this season. Head coach Jerritt Elliott expects the crowd to be a major advantage.

“[A sellout] brings so much energy to [the team],” Elliott said. “It gets their adrenaline flowing. It makes [Gregory Gym] significantly louder. It creates energy flow. The fans want to be more involved in [the game] because there are more people. … When you have that, it’s nice.”

While Texas is looking forward to its upcoming rivalry game, it has some tuneups to make before Saturday. Although the Longhorns made history Wednesday night, winning their 34th straight home game and improving to 15-0, Elliott was disappointed with the team’s play.

“I thought [Wednesday] we got pretty comfortable with just who we were,” Elliott said. “We felt like we were going to win the game, and that’s the challenge now: for me to get back to them and see if we can improve on that.”

Despite Elliott’s disappointment, McCage says the team recognizes what it struggled with against TCU.

“I understand [Elliott’s] disappointment,” McCage said. “There were some things we practiced all this week that we didn’t execute during the game. That’s a minor setback, but I think our team did well regardless of the minor mistakes that we made. We still did well and finished the match.”

Texas will look to McCage when it takes on Oklahoma, as she leads the Longhorns in blocks with 1.31 per set, good for second in the Big 12 and 37th in the NCAA. McCage also leads team which ranks seventh in the Big 12 with a .340 hitting percentage this season.

McCage and Texas take on the Sooners at 5 p.m. Saturday in Gregory Gym, with the game being broadcast on the Longhorn Network.

“I’m super excited about this game,” McCage said. “I know that it’s at home and our gym is going to be super packed. I’m expecting a lot of huge plays coming from my team. But I think OU is going to show us whatever they got.”

Big 12 Freshman of the Year Chiaka Ogbogu remembers watching Texas take on Michigan in the semifinals last year. She played alongside freshman setter Chloe Collins in the Under Armour All-America Volleyball Match & Skills Competition just a day earlier in the same arena — the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky.

She stayed the extra day to watch the team she had committed to join. She remembers sitting in the stands with Collins, getting excited about her future collegiate career.

“[Everything], from [Sarah] Palmers’ defense to Bailey [Webster’s] hitting was amazing,” Ogbogu said. “It was just so exciting to watch. I remember getting chills and thinking about possibly being there next year.”

That opportunity is finally here. The stands are already set up for the first-round matchup against Texas State on Thursday. The top-seeded Longhorns are not fazed. Two days before their first game on the road to a repeat, the atmosphere in Gregory was surprisingly relaxed.

Jokes were being told, and the laughs were loud.

“You got to make sure they are laughing,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “You have to make the journey fun. It can’t be all business and [seriousness].”

The Longhorns are looking to repeat what they did last season when they dog piled in Louisville. But the defending champions are the team everyone wants to
take down.

“We have a big bull’s-eye on our back,” sophomore middle blocker Molly McCage said. “But I don’t think it affects our team. We don’t discuss that we are the number one seed.”

But McCage realizes last year’s run is in the past and that they need to be focused on the tournament this year.  

“It’s definitely not ‘no big deal,’” McCage said. “It’s a huge deal for us to win another national championship. Last year was great and was a great achievement, but that was last year. It’s a whole new year and new team.”

The tournament starts Thursday at 7 p.m. against a Bobcat team Elliott believes is very strong. 

“It’s the best Texas State squad they have ever had,” Elliott said. “We aren’t looking ahead. Our focus is Texas State and Texas State only.”

If the Longhorns beat Texas State, they move on to face the winner of the UTSA-Texas A&M game for a chance to go to the round of 16. The rest of their quarter of the bracket features the No. 8 seed Nebraska, No. 9 seed San Diego, No. 16 seed Duke and the team that Texas knocked off last year for their first title since 1988 — Oregon. 

Tickets are already sold out for Gregory Gym both days.

“I heard people talking about how intimidating Gregory is,” McCage said. “The fact that [the audience] is right on top of the court is a huge advantage.”

Photo Credit: John Massingill | Daily Texan Staff

Texas' 'B' squad is good enough to run the table in the Big 12.

At least, that’s what many of the Longhorn players believe. 

No. 1 Texas has glided through its opening conference stretch with ease. The Longhorns (18-2, 11-0 Big 12) have won all 11 of their games, never even allowing a match to reach the fifth set. 

Other than walk-on senior libero Megan Futch, every healthy Longhorn sees significant playing time and could probably start elsewhere in the conference. 

But instead of wearing crimson or green, they don burnt orange. The bench players may not start, but that doesn’t mean everyone underestimates them.

“They definitely can,” senior setter Hannah Allison said.

Sophomore middle Molly McCage agrees.

“Honestly, I think they could,” McCage said. 

With the ongoing mixing of the Texas lineup, there is no set 'B' squad. But on any given day, accounting for a few positions because of injury, the lineup could consist of freshman Pilar Victoria and sophomore Amy Neal as the outsides, freshman Chloe Collins as setter, sophomore Sara Hattis in the middle and sophomore Kat Brooks as libero.

But let’s take this one step further by putting that lineup in terms of accolades. 

Victoria was named to the national team in Puerto Rico at the age of 16 and was her home country’s top volleyball prospect. Neal was the No. 18 overall recruit in the class of 2012 and the 2011 Texas Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year. Collins was a first-team All-American her senior year of high school. Hattis was the No. 9 recruit and New Mexico Player of the Year for volleyball. And Brooks was the starting libero for the top volleyball team in Hawaii.

If you give the Longhorns back their two injured players, sophomore do-it-all Nicole Dalton and junior outside Tiffany Baker, the “B” squad could be a top-10 team in the nation.  

“It’s kind of crazy how competitive our gym can be,” Allison said. “Our B side continuously beats our A side. I don’t know what other team can say that.”

Head coach Jerritt Elliott doesn’t mind the surplus of talent.

“They are making decisions difficult for the staff,” Elliott said. “It’s a great dilemma for the coaching staff. Nobody’s job is safe in our gym.”

The talent keeps stockpiling, too. Elliott recently announced that libero Cat McCoy from Southlake and middle Mirta Baselovic from Croatia will join the Longhorns in 2014. McCoy is a first team All-American honoree. Baselovic is 6-feet-3-inches and has been on the Croatian junior national team for three years.  

According to Texas, when the Longhorns travel to Lubbock Saturday for a 1 p.m. matchup with the Red Raiders, the two best squads in the Big 12 will be sitting on the same bench.

“We do have a really competitive gym,” McCage said. “But I think that’s what makes us No. 1 in the nation.”

Photo Credit: Charlie Pearce | Daily Texan Staff

Freshman Chiaka Ogbogu is a middle blocker. She has played the position her whole life and was recruited to man the middle at Texas.

“Chiaka will continue the great tradition of middle blockers we have had in this program,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said after Ogbogu committed to his program. “She is a smooth athlete that has the potential to develop into one of the premier players in the nation.”

But when she arrived, two huge road blocks stood in her way: sophomore Molly McCage and junior Khat Bell.

With the two of them at middle, Texas won a national championship. And they didn’t get worse in the offseason — the pair only improved. 

“It was intimidating coming in, because they just won it all and only graduated one player,” Ogbogu said. “It was competitive to fight for that one open spot, but that competitiveness is one of the reasons I came here.”

Instead of having the 6-foot-2-inch freshman ride the bench her freshman, and maybe even sophomore year, Elliott decided to move Ogbogu to opposite, a position she is unfamiliar and uncomfortable with.

“I played middle my whole life,” Ogbogu said. “The only time I ever played a different position was in practice.”

Ogbogu had not played a position other than middle blocker in a game since her sophomore year of high school.

And why would she have to play any other position? She was the 2012 Gatorade Texas Volleyball Player of the Year at middle blocker as a high school senior. 

But the freshman is starting to adjust to the different angles and skills needed at her new spot on the court. 

“The blocking is different,” Ogbogu said. “I have to be patient, wait more and get the high balls.”

The slow transition from the middle to opposite on defense has not slowed her potent offensive game. 

She leads No. 3 Texas (12-2, 5-0 Big 12) in hitting percentage, swinging at a ridiculous rate of .442 — double the rate of All-American Haley Eckerman. Ogbogu’s .442 not only leads the team but ranks her 12th in the nation.

“I think a lot of teams are caught off guard when I get the set,” Ogbogu said. “Getting the extra reps has helped with the switch and boosts my confidence also.”

Bell, who experienced a similar shift from the outside to middle blocker her freshman year, took Ogbogu under her wing, helping to ease her transition. 

“She went through the same switch as me,” Ogbogu said. “In my first game at Illinois she boosted me up and told me she knew I was ready.”

When Iowa State (10-5, 4-1 Big 12) comes to Austin on Saturday at 6:30 p.m., don’t look for Ogbogu in the middle.

“I had been playing middle my whole life — one position the whole time,” Ogbogu said. “Now I think I got the hang of it.”

 

Freshman Chiaka Ogbogu is a middle blocker. She has played the position her whole life and was recruited to man the middle at Texas.

“Chiaka will continue the great tradition of middle blockers we have had in this program,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said after Ogbogu committed to his program. “She is a smooth athlete that has the potential to develop into one of the premier players in the nation.”

But when she arrived, two huge road blocks stood in her way: sophomore Molly McCage and junior Khat Bell.

With the two of them at middle, Texas won a national championship. And they didn’t get worse in the offseason — the pair only improved. 

“It was intimidating coming in, because they just won it all and only graduated one player,” Ogbogu said. “It was competitive to fight for that one open spot, but that competitiveness is one of the reasons I came here.”

So instead of having the 6-foot-2-inch freshman ride the bench her freshman, and maybe even sophomore year, Elliott decided to move Ogbogu to opposite, a position she is unfamiliar and uncomfortable with.

“I played middle my whole life,” Ogbogu said. “The only time I ever played a different position was in practice.”

In fact, Ogbogu had not played a position other than middle blocker in a game since her sophomore year of high school.

And why would she have to play any other position? She was the 2012 Gatorade Texas Volleyball Player of the Year at middle blocker as a high school senior. 

But the freshman is starting to adjust to the different angles and skills needed at her new spot on the court. 

“The blocking is different,” Ogbogu said. “I have to be patient, wait more and get the high balls.”

But the slow transition from the middle to opposite on defense has not slowed her potent offensive game. 

She leads No. 3 Texas (12-2, 5-0 Big 12) in hitting percentage, swinging at a ridiculous rate of .442 — double the rate of All-American Haley Eckerman. Ogbogu’s .442 hitting percentage not only leads the team, but ranks her 12th in the nation.

“I think a lot of teams are caught off guard when I get the set,” Ogbogu said. “Getting the extra reps has helped with the switch and boosts my confidence also.”

Bell, who experienced a similar shift from the outside to middle blocker her freshman year, has taken Ogbogu under her wing, helping to ease her transition. 

“She went through the same switch as me,” Ogbogu said. “In my first game at Illinois she boosted me up and told me she knew I was ready.”

When Iowa State (10-5, 4-1 Big 12) comes to Austin on Saturday at 6:30 p.m., don’t expect to see Ogbogu in the middle, as she kind of likes being on the right. 

“I had been playing middle my whole life — one position the whole time,” Ogbogu said. “Now I think I got the hang of it.”

Photo Credit: Shelby Tauber | Daily Texan Staff

When the Longhorns begin conference play on Wednesday night, they’ll be under much less pressure than they were before. 

Fifth-ranked Texas (6-2) opens up Big 12 play against TCU after notching its third comeback victory of the season against Nebraska. The Longhorns amassed 16 blocks to the Cornhuskers’ nine, showcasing a defense that has propelled the team to victory all season.

“Blocking is an important aspect of this,” head coach Jerritt Elliot said. “Not so much about numbers, but more about how we are getting touches and putting pressure on teams.”

Texas has registered 91 total blocks this season compared to 65 for its opponents, while only recording 14 block errors. In the team’s eight games, only three foes have compiled more blocks.

Sophomore middle blocker Molly McCage has emerged as one of the Longhorns’ premier blockers after seven blocks against Nebraska brought her season total to 35. The top-ranked recruit of the class of 2012 takes special pride in defending the net.

“[Blocking] not only fires me up, but it fires my whole team up,” McCage said. “To have that solid defense on our side of the court is a huge advantage. All around we are a great blocking team, but to be able to contribute to that is a great feeling.”

The Longhorns’ stellar defense has buoyed the offensive charge as the team has outhit opponents .242-.226 this season. That production has forced opponents into 38 more attack errors this season and spearheaded a 4-1 record against ranked opponents for Texas.

“This team is really big on consistency, and I’ve improved in that as well by playing with my amazing teammates,” McCage said. “Everyone on the team has so much to contribute. I’m going to try my best to give them everything that I have, because they would and will do the same.”

Although Iowa State is the only other team in the Big 12 ranked in the Top 25, the Longhorns know the road doesn’t get any easier.

“We’re super excited. I feel like we ended preseason on a good note,” McCage said. “We’re ready to get back to the Big 12 and really ready to compete because we have a lot of in-state rivals, and I feel like that’ll prepare us well for the tournament.”

Sara Hattis, Middle Blocker

Photo Credit: Zachary Strain | Daily Texan Staff

One year ago, they were stealing courtside attention on high school volleyball teams. Now, five UT freshmen are lighting up Gregory Gym, proving their talent week after week and encountering their first NCAA tournament experiences.

“They’re playing like veterans,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “It’s one of the reasons that we schedule so tough at the beginning. Now they’re used to playing high-level volleyball.”

For Kat Brooks, Nicole Dalton, Sara Hattis, Molly McCage and Amy Neal, this season has meant a flurry of new experiences and excitement for what’s to come as they enter the toughest part of the season.

Kat Brooks, Libero
“If you lose, you go home, so we really have this drive to win and to play our best every night. Gregory’s been so full lately and it’s been amazing.”

Sara Hattis, Middle Blocker
“It’s really exciting to be with this team because we’re really special and we have a chance to do something that not many schools and teams can. Games are just unbelievable.”

Molly McCage, Middle Blocker
“I’m looking forward to competitive play. I feel like Florida’s going to play out of their minds. I’m so glad we’re home and we have so many people behind us.”

Amy Neal, Libero/Outside Hitter
“Now we just have to do everything we can. Practice is really focused and every team’s good. I think we’re prepared. I think it’ll turn out really well for us.”

Nicole Dalton, Outside Hitter/Setter
Dalton has played 90 sets for the Longhorns and started in 13 sets, earning 35 kills and tallying 56.5 points in her first year. Dalton was unavailable for comment.

Printed on Friday, December 6, 2012 as: Freshman first-timers experience postseason

Head coach Jerritt Elliott address the media on Monday.

Photo Credit: Lawrence Peart | Daily Texan Staff

With the conclusion of October, the Longhorns are more than halfway through their season and have exhibited more balance and consistency than was seen in August. They are excited about the next step, likely earning home court advantage in the first few rounds of the NCAA tournament plus a possible trip to the Final Four in Kentucky later this year.

“We are excited,” Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott said Monday. “We are getting some great play out of a lot of our players and we are playing a lot steadier ... we are getting a lot more balance.”

No. 7 Texas has a week off before facing No. 20 Kansas, second in the Big 12, Saturday on the road in Lawrence. The Longhorns’ impressive 20-3 season record and 12-0 conference mark only show a little of the inconsistency they struggled with at the start of the season. The Longhorns were plagued with high error counts and inconsistent play from their entire lineup.

In back-to-back losses to Penn State and Minnesota in September, high errors doomed the Longhorns. They racked up 17 and 23 errors in each game, respectively. Since then, the mistakes are down to much lower numbers on average.

Sophomore Haley Eckerman and junior Bailey Webster have been the backbone of Texas all season. Webster was named Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week on Monday after her effort against Kansas State.

Eckerman has won Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week four times this season and is in the running for National Player of the Year recognition.

Early on, the Longhorns were receiving excellent performances from their star players. However, they were inconsistent, which led to losses to talented opponents.

“The development of where Haley and Bailey have gone is critical,” Elliott said. “We are starting to get a lot of good play out of both of them on the same night; early on we weren’t getting that.”

Since then, they have won 14 straight matches in both sweeps and five-set matches. They are also finally receiving big numbers from their highly touted freshman class. Molly McCage, the No. 1 ranked freshman in the class of 2012, is finally living up to the hype she created when she stepped onto the 40 Acres.

“She’s done a phenomenal job and her numbers continue to go up,” Elliott said. “We kept her confidence going and now she’s getting to the point where she can take some big swings in critical situations.”   At the start of the season, McCage was rarely seen on the court and never played during crunch time. However, in the past few weeks she has graduated to a starting role as a middle blocker. McCage has put up two straight career highs with 10 kills in each of the last two matches and posted a combined hitting clip of .643 against TCU and Kansas State this past week. She was named Big 12 Rookie of the Week for her performance.

The Longhorns have managed to keep their national title hopes alive during the toughest part of the season.

“If you look around the country, almost everyone in the top ten lost,” Elliott said. “For us to be able to go three wins in such a short amount of time was very pleasing. It’s a critical time but it’s a good time for us.”

9: Straight seasons which Texas has hit 20 wins during the regular season.

14: Straight wins by Texas including a 12-0 conference start which ties head coach Jerritt Elliott’s best conference start at Texas.'

2,379: career assists for Hannah Allison, good for ninth place in Texas history. Allison had 46 assists against Kansas State.

Why Texas won

They’ve learned to play a gritty and close game without letting strong opponent play mentally harm their focus. Sophomore Haley Eckerman said it best: “In the beginning of the season when we were down, everything was all over the place and now ... when it comes down to that crunch time, we are doing a lot better and staying focused on one point at a time.”

Stock up:

Molly McCage: McCage exploded over the past few games. Last week she set a career high kill count with 10 against TCU and turned around and did it again with 10 kills against Kansas State. Against the Cats, she logged a .500 hitting average.

Set by set:

Set 1: The Longhorns took early command of set one, jumping to an 11-4 lead. The Wildcats brought it to within five points, but the Longhorns kept a strong lead, winning 25-18 and never trailing in set one.

Set 2: The Wildcats kept the match close, leading for a good portion of the set. Several controversial calls on both sides of the net increased the tensions between the teams, but a 6-2 push by Texas secured the 25-22 win.

Set 3: After the intermission, the score was close through the entire set. At one point, someone even tried to pass to coach Elliott, but he batted it down with a slight smile. The Wildcats led 15-13 midway through the final set, but a surge by Texas prevented any hope for extending to the match to a fourth set, winning the third set, 25-19, to seal the victory.

What's next -

Texas will get a full week of rest before it travels to Lawrence to take on No. 20 Kansas, which is ranked second in the conference. Texas will also be looking to break the record for best conference start under Elliott and hit 13-0 in conference play. With a win, Texas will further its claim for the Big 12 crown. The No. 7 Longhorns face off against Kansas at 6:30 p.m Sunday

Printed on Monday, November 5, 2012 as: McCage steps up in sweep of 'Cats'

Facing the third-ranked team in the Big 12, Texas blocked, killed and dug its way to a close victory over Kansas State in front of an energetic and enthusiastic crowd of Longhorn supporters Friday.

The No. 16 Wildcats found themselves swept by the No. 7 Longhorns in what was Texas’s 14th consecutive win this season.

And while the victory marks a tie for the most successful start in conference play under its head coach, Jerritt Elliott was quick to credit his talented roster in face of a tough opponent.

“Kansas State is very well coached,” Elliott said. “They are disciplined, they don’t make a whole lot of errors and they make you be good.  We, again, are just staying steady with our game.”

Haley Eckerman’s serve jump-started the first set, launching five straight points for the Longhorns. Throughout the set, Eckerman added five kills, while freshman Molly McCage posted four of her own, allowing Texas to take the set, 25-18.

Set two was a constant battle between both teams with frequent ties sprinkled throughout. As the set drew closer to match point, Texas found itself down one point until Eckerman powered two kills and Khat Bell launched a service ace, closing the set at an uncomfortably close 25-22.

After an early rally by Kansas State in the third, Texas trailed shortly behind until Webster tied up the score with two consecutive kills. After falling behind once more in the middle of the set, Texas’ streak of four points effectively ended Kansas State’s hope of winning the match. McCage topped it off with a kill at match point, completing the sweep for the Longhorns.

McCage’s conclusion of the third set has been one of many highlights in her first season as a Longhorn.

“It is different than anything I have experienced,” she said of the team’s success thus far. “Just coming into a great team that has been really welcoming and getting comfortable with my teammates has been a big part of where we are at right now.”

With a 20-3 record and a top ranking in the Big 12, Elliott said the dedication of the team and its returning members has shined throughout the season.

“I think it is a great testament to the players that have been in the program, that have come here and bought into this and want to be a part of it,” he said. “We are excited about the development of our team and where we are headed right now.”

Printed on Monday, November 5, 2012 as: Texas ties record, wins 15th straight match