Nicole Dalton

If there were any doubts that the six-day layoff between the second-round win over Arizona State would hurt the Longhorns, they were put away pretty quickly on Friday.

Behind three kills by senior outside hitter Haley Eckerman in the first seven points of the match, No. 2 seed Texas set the tone of the regional semifinal early on and kept pouring it on against No. 15 seed Colorado State for the sweep to advance to the regional final with a chance to get back to the Final Four.

After taking the quick 6-1 lead in the first set, the Longhorns survived numerous attempts by the Rams to get back into the set. Colorado State initially answered with a 3-1 run to cut the deficit to 10-8. Then after Texas went on a 3-1 run, the Rams answered with a 5-2 run to get the Longhorn lead down to 21-19. However, following a timeout, Texas rolled on with a 4-0 run, including two aces by sophomore setter Nicole Dalton, to take the set 25-19.

The second set started out in similar fashion as the Longhorns jumped out to a 5-2 lead, but the Rams immediately answered with a 4-0 run to take their first lead at 6-5. After going back-and-forth for a few points, Texas broke away with a 9-3 run to take a 19-13 lead en route to a 25-18 set win and a 2-0 match lead.

The third set followed a similar path as the Longhorns broke out of the intermission break with a 6-2 lead, only for the Rams to answer with a 6-0 run to take an 8-6 lead. But the Texas came right back with a 4-0 run of its own to take a 10-8 lead.

The Longhorns would never trail again in the set, finishing off the set with a 25-17 lead.

Eckerman played a critical role in helping her and fellow senior outside hitter Khat Bell’s Texas career alive, drilling 16 kills and posting a .364 hitting percentage. Dalton finished the night with three service aces and 18 assists. On the offensive end, the Longhorns posted a .327 hitting percentage.

On the defensive end, junior outside hitter Amy Neal lead the team with 14 digs while freshman Cat McCoy came up big with 12 digs. The Longhorns outblocked the Rams eight to three and held Colorado State to a .175 hitting percentage.

Texas advances to Saturday’s regional final for the ninth straight season and will face No. 7 seed North Carolina, who beat Oregon 3-1 Friday

 

Nicole Dalton sets up a play for Texas. The Longhorns will face their biggest challenger for the Big 12 crown this weekend in Manhattan. The Wildcats have only dropped one match this season.(Daily Texan file photo)

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

When sophomore utility player Nicole Dalton stepped onto the court in the Lobo Classic last weekend, it was the culmination of a year-and-a-half of hard work and rehab.

Following the Longhorns’ national title run in 2012, Dalton had surgery on her left and right hips last season, forcing her to sit out for the majority of the year.

After a tough rehab, Dalton returned to the court Friday against UTEP and played a key part in Texas’ three wins over the weekend.

“I’ve been waiting for almost a year-and-a-half to get back onto the court,” Dalton said. “It felt good to just get out there and play.”

In her freshman year, Dalton played in 31 of the Longhorns’ 35 matches and posted a .206 hitting percentage, along with 35 kills and 184 digs. But two days after Texas claimed its national title, Dalton underwent surgery on her left hip to help fix a labral tear.

Dalton, a Colorado native, went through the rehab process during the offseason, only to have a setback with her right hip, forcing her to have a second surgery in September and redshirt last season.

“It’s almost been a year, and I’m slowly but surely getting back onto the court,” Dalton said.

Dalton described her time away from the court as one of the hardest things she’s done. However, during that time, Dalton found a new role for herself on the team as almost another assistant coach, helping the setters figure out where to go with the ball.

“They were really good with communicating with me and taking my feedback,” Dalton said.

While the typical length of recovery for Dalton’s injury is six to eight months, it took her eight to ten months to complete her rehab. And once team doctors cleared her for action, winning a spot on the court wasn’t an easy task, considering the Longhorns’ stacked lineup. Still, Dalton was confident she would make the most of her opportunities and win a spot on the roster.

In three matches this past weekend, she totaled 56 assists and 19 digs and was named to the all-tournament team.

Head coach Jerritt Elliott is finally ready to have Dalton back. With such a young team, he hopes Dalton contiues to be a leader off the court, as she makes her way back on it. 

“Everybody thinks that this is a great team at this point, but we are extremely young in terms of the amount of time players have had on the court,” Elliott said. “[Dalton] has done a really nice job of being a veteran in this program and leading them and having the confidence to keep them calm.”

With both hips now healed and the Longhorns eyeing a return to the national championship, Dalton isn’t worried about injuries. Instead, she simply wants to play her game.

“I have nothing to lose,” Dalton said. “Everything’s fixed.”

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

Texas has been utilizing a large freshman class this year in order to overcome the loss of four high-performing seniors at the conclusion of the 2011 season. Over the weekend, the freshmen had a solid couple of games earning much praise from the modest crowd at Gregory.

Outside hitter Nicole Dalton saw an increase in playing time over the weekend, turning in 12 kills and 34 digs with 16 assists. Dalton secured the come from behind victory during set two against Cincinnati with sophomore Khat Bell with back-to-back blocks.

“She does a great job at talking, being excited,” said sophomore outside hitter Haley Eckerman said of Dalton. “Just being a team player and overall along with the other freshman too.”

The crowd often chanted for libero Kat Brooks especially after three serving aces during the loss to Illinois in game one. A few incredible saves later, the support for the 5-foot-4-inch Hawaiian native was reaching that of fellow junior libero Sarah Palmer.

After loss, Longhorns fight for final two wins

The No. 6 Longhorns dropped a hard-fought five-set battle against No. 23 Illinois Friday night full of errors and missed opportunities. However, Texas bounced back and swept their final two opponents, finishing 2-1 on the weekend.

However, despite sweeping Cincinnati, the Bearcats kept the score close through all three sets of Texas’ second game. There were nine lead change s and 24 tied scores in the match. The first two sets against the Bearcats went to extra-points as the Longhorns fought to win, 30-28, and, 28-26.

By keeping the game close, Cincinnati forced the Longhorns to prove that they’re able to win close, scrappy fights. Texas came out Saturday afternoon against the University of Central Florida Knights to win in three sets, this time easily, by an average of 11.5 points per set.

Eckerman dominates despite errors

Eckerman has become a staple of highlight reels, and rightfully so. This past weekend, Eckerman had a stand out game against Cincinnati while turning in an impressive overall performance in three games.

Against Cincinnati, Eckerman turned in a career-high 23 kills while hitting .487. She also tied her career-high dig count with six against Cincinnati. Over the weekend, she had 55 kills and 22 digs while hitting .318.

Despite the impressive statistics, Eckerman had trouble with her serves over the weekend, committing 13 service errors, almost half of the 29 committed by the Longhorn team.

“We talk about that in practice and try to maintain our error percentage,” Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott said of the high number of errors this weekend. “We were high in sets one and two (against Cincinnati). We had a total of 29 errors, so we pretty much scored 45 percent of the points for the other teams.”

Printed on Monday, September 17, 2012 as: Texas relies on freshmen in invitational weekend

ShaÂ’Dare McNeal started at libero for the Longhorns. McNeal usually plays utility and had three kills during the loss.

Photo Credit: Zachary Strain | Daily Texan Staff

Texas comes back in third set to challenge Cougars

Thursday night definitely wasn’t the ideal match for the Longhorns, but some valuable lessons surely came out of each set. After going down 0-2 in the first two sets, the Longhorns fought back to win the third set but saw their comeback bid fall just short in the fourth set.

Texas didn’t quite look like it was ready to play in the first two sets, but the team regained its composure in the third set. A big part of their close comeback was a huge block by Texas middle blockers Khat Bell and Nicole Dalton in the third set, resulting in a Texas point. The block gave Texas a 19-18 lead which helped carry the Longhorns to victory in the set. While most of Texas’ points came from good plays, Minnesota helped them out after some miscommunication and poor serves, giving Texas some easy points.

A key part of the Longhorns’ comeback attempt was confidence. After the break following the second set, the Longhorns came out of the gate with energy and a mission. Blocks would be key for the Longhorns to keep pace with Minnesota, which they definitely accomplished.

Blocking makes the difference in 3-1 loss

Coming up with blocks in pivotal volleys was a vital part of this match between the Gophers and the Longhorns. Minnesota dominated this aspect of the game for the first two sets coming out with 7.5 blocks while Texas only tallied 4. The Gophers recorded a total of 13 assisted blocks but only five single blocks. Texas came on strong in the third set tallying five team blocks while their opponent only tallied another two. The six assisted blocks in the third set were a big part of Texas’ game.

For both teams, digs proved to be vital elements of their respective games. The Golden Gophers logged 67 during the four sets, which saved multiple points for them. While Texas only tallied 46 digs, they were just as important. On multiple occasions, Texas diggers saved losing a set for the Longhorns, keeping their hopes alive. Senior Sha’Dare McNeal, who started at libero, recorded 11 digs for her Texas team while freshman Nicole Dalton, finishing with 10 digs, also gave her team an advantage with her play. Head coach Jerritt Elliott knew his team’s strengths, but they just couldn’t capitalize.

Harms stumps the Longhorns with 24 kills

Both teams had their standout players for the night. For Minnesota, Senior Katherine Harms out of Albertville, Minn., led her team with 24 kills and 13 digs. While hitting .319 with two assists, she helped her team get the win. Head coach Elliott definitely knew she would be troubling going into the match.

“She is good and we knew that. I thought we did a better job in sets three and four, but then she got hot again in set four. She hurt us early and we knew we had to key in on her and be all over her,” Elliot said.

The Longhorns were led by junior opposite/outside hitter Bailey Webster. She tied her career best 17 kills and hit .368. Dalton also was a key player with a season high 21 assists, 10 digs, and one kill. The freshman definitely showed potential in loss.

(Daily Texan File Photo)

Photo Credit: Amanda Martin | Daily Texan Staff

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.