Sara Hattis

Senior outside hitter Haley Eckerman is ready to take Texas back to the top. After last season’s Final Four exit, Eckerman and the Longhorns are ready to get the season under way.

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

As a middle blocker and center in high school, junior middle blocker Sara Hattis made quite the name for herself in New Mexico. In her time at Cleveland High School, just outside of Albuquerque, Hattis garnered All-State honors in both volleyball and basketball, was an Under Armour All-American honorable mention in volleyball and led her volleyball team to the state finals.

Now in her junior year at Texas, Hattis is returning home when the Longhorns compete in the Lobo Classic this weekend and can’t wait to show off her home state to her teammates.

“It’s an exciting experience to bring your team back to where you’re from and show them what you did and grew up with your whole life,” Hattis said.

Raised in Rio Rancho, about 20 minutes outside of Albuquerque, Hattis was a multi-sport star in high school. In addition to her honors in basketball and volleyball, she also succeeded in track and field, placing second at state in the high jump her senior year.

Returning to her home state, Hattis is a key part on a Longhorn team looking to contend again for the national title after missing out on a chance to repeat as champs a year ago. The tournament is Texas’ first competitive match since suffering a heart-wrenching defeat to Wisconsin in the Final Four last December.

As tough as the loss was, Hattis said it was a good learning moment for the team.

“We have to be able to take every game seriously and not let down and think it’s going to be an easy game,” Hattis said.

That includes this weekend. While Texas comes in ranked second in the AVCA Coaches poll, none of the other teams in the tournament are in the top 25 and only one, New Mexico, received votes in the poll.

The Longhorns bring in a team loaded with talent, despite losing four players from last year’s team because of graduation. Along with the usual suspects in senior outside hitters Haley Eckerman and Khat Bell, Texas brought in two top freshmen in libero Cat McCoy and defensive specialist Kate Palladino.

With the top players whom they have, head coach Jerritt Elliottt plans on moving to a 6-2 formation, keeping a libero in the back row at all times with the hope of that opening up the offense. 

“With us running the players that we have, we have the ability this year that’s a lot more comfortable than it’s ever been,” Elliott said.

Texas will get a chance to try out the new system against three teams that struggled in 2013. New Mexico is the only other team in the tournament to boast a winning record last year but still missed out on the postseason. The other two, UTEP and Seattle, combined for a 27-36 record.

Even with the lower level of competition to open the season, Elliott said they’re ready to start competing against someone other than themselves.

“They’ve been pushing each other a lot,” Elliott said. “It will be great to see somebody else across the net and see kind of where we’re at at this point.”

Photo Credit: Charlie Pearce | Daily Texan Staff

It looked as though the tallest player on the team was poised for another year as a spectator.

At 6-foot-4, sophomore middle blocker Sara Hattis, the No. 9 national recruit in 2012, looked to take the open job at middle blocker last year. But junior Khat Bell transitioned back to her natural position, and the No. 1 recruit from Hattis’ recruiting class, Molly McCage won the other spot.  

Not only did neither Bell nor McCage graduate to create an open spot, but head coach Jerritt Elliott brought in the 2012 Gatorade Texas Volleyball Player of the Year, Chiaka Ogbogu — also a middle blocker.

“We see a lot of players pushing each other and we need to find opportunities for them,” Elliott said after the win against Oklahoma. “Sara Hattis is one of them. She has really been practicing well.”

But when given the chance, Hattis has taken full advantage of her opportunities. 

Ogbogu made a position switch to opposite, filling the open spot vacated by the graduated Sha’Dare McNeal. Then, Bell suffered a right calf strain while warming up against Baylor, and her status is day-to-day. 

So Hattis was given a chance to prove herself, and she had only one goal. 

“I just want to go out there and make plays,” Hattis said.

That’s exactly what she did.

In her first expanded role of the season against Baylor, Hattis had seven kills in 10 chances. Wednesday night against Texas Tech, she recorded five kills in seven chances. Her hitting percentage is .387, well-above Elliott’s stated goal for the team, .315.

“I’m just trying to do what the coaches expect from me,” Hattis said.

The above-average hitting percentage, coupled with her long anticipated playing time, makes moments like these gratifying.

“I’m really enjoying myself out there, and I hope my teammates are too,”
Hattis said.

While the in-gym competition is good for the competitiveness of the squad, it puts pressure on the coaches to hit the right buttons.

“We have great middles,” Elliott said. “They are making decisions difficult for the staff. It’s a great dilemma for the coaching staff.”

When No. 3 Texas (11-2, 4-0 Big 12) travels to Lawrence on Saturday to take on the only other undefeated team in conference, Elliott will have to make some decisions about his lineup.

“Nobody’s job is safe in our gym,” Elliott said. “We will go back and re-evaluate our lineup for Kansas on Saturday.“

Despite an 0-5 start to Big 12 play in her first year as Texas head coach, Karen Aston is still proving to be an excellent recruiter.

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

With the departure of Cokie Reed and Chelsea Bass from the roster because of health concerns, head coach Karen Aston will have some pretty big shoes to fill through her recruiting efforts. 

However, in her short time at Texas, Aston has already resorted to methods different from those of her predecessor in order to fill holes on the bench. Not only has she signed several junior college recruits since her hiring, but she has also dipped into the various talent pools within Texas’ athletic system. 

So far this season, Aston has acquired talent from two other teams within the University. At the start of the season, senior Nadia Taylor, formerly a third baseman who played four years of softball for head coach Connie Clark at Texas, joined the team to take advantage of her final year of eligibility. 

“As a fifth-year student athlete, she has been able to help the young players adapt to Texas and understand what it means to be a part of the Texas legacy,” Aston said.

Although she has seen limited action so far, Taylor’s presence on the bench provides needed depth. Aston also praised Taylor for the leadership skills she brings to the court. 

Aston also added freshman Sara Hattis in December, a member of the national championship-winning volleyball squad under the direction of head coach Jerritt Elliott. At the end of the basketball season, Hattis will return to the volleyball team. 

As a senior at Cleveland High in Rio Rancho, N.M., Hattis was a heavily recruited volleyball and basketball prospect. After sifting through many scholarship efforts from both volleyball and basketball coaches, Hattis decided to play volleyball at Texas. 

At the start of her career on the 40 Acres, Hattis was unsure of her participation in basketball, but decided to join up after the volleyball season ended. 

By adding Hattis, Aston filled another hole. Besides freshman Imani McGee-Stafford, the Longhorns are fielding a relatively average-sized team. Hattis brings a 6-foot-4-inch frame to the court with an impressive jumping ability. She can reach a height of 10 feet one inch on a vertical jump and can dunk a tennis ball. Her goal by the end of training is to reach a vertical of around 10 feet 7 inches and dunk a basketball. 

“Anytime you can welcome someone to your team with an inherent sense of Texas pride, it’s a plus,” Aston said. 

Aston and her staff also welcomed two college transfers to help fill out the bench. 

GiGi Mazionyte, from Weatherford College, and Ashley Roberts, from South Plains College, were added this past May to the Longhorn roster. Gail Goestenkors, who stepped down as head coach after last season, didn’t seek junior college transfers. The last junior college player to transfer to Texas did so in 2004.

“These young ladies possess a terrific combination of athletic ability and commitment to excellence in the classroom,” Aston said. “They are going to be great ambassadors for Texas women’s basketball.”  

Maziontye was recruited based on her versatility and experience as a forward. Because she has played both at the collegiate level at Weatherford and as a member of the Lithuania national team, Aston hopes her addition will help mature the young Texas roster, especially through the rigorous conference schedule. 

Roberts filled a need as guard for the Longhorns and provided a necessary backcourt presence. She has a proven ability to score, another needed quality for the Longhorns. 

While at Texas, Aston has begun to fill the holes in the Texas roster and provide the Longhorns with the talent needed to make it to the
next level.

Sara Hattis (15)) prpares to receive a set from Nicole Dalton (7). A former basketball standout, Hattis is adjusting to her new role playing volleyball for Texas. The Longhorns will take on Illinios Friday as part of Time Warner Cable Texas Invitational.

Photo Credit: Nathan Goldsmith | Daily Texan Staff

After only three months of club volleyball, freshman Sara Hattis walked onto the 40 Acres as Prep Volleyball’s No. 9 recruit in the nation in 2012. The New Mexico native was originally recruited by colleges across the country to play basketball. As a senior, Hattis was in the top 100 nationally for women’s basketball before deciding that volleyball was where she wanted to be.

“I played basketball my whole life, and I still love the game,” Hattis said of her decision to play volleyball in college. “It was a matter of the team and the school for me ... it ended up being volleyball because of Texas.”

In high school, Hattis was named the New Mexico Player of the Year for volleyball in her senior season. As a junior and a senior, she earned a spot on the all-state team in New Mexico. In her final season at Cleveland High School, she posted a .485 hitting average with 289 kills, numbers that would make any coach salivate.

In fact, although it is not widely known, Hattis is a triple threat. In high school she also competed with the track and field team during her junior and senior seasons. Her team won the state title in New Mexico during her senior season, with Hattis finishing second in the high jump.

Head coach Jerritt Elliott said Hattis has a quick arm swing, and he expects her to be one of the best blockers on the team.

“She is going to be special,” Elliott said. “Things are going to accelerate for her pretty fast. She is a big-time player. It just depends how quickly she adapts to the speed and physicality of our gym.”

Hattis is a 6-foot-4-inch middle blocker who has big hands and plays long. However, the quirky freshman, who has the ability to make the big plays on the court, barely talked when she first stepped onto the 40 Acres.

“She was really quiet,” said sophomore outside hitter Haley Eckerman. “We just kind of wanted to bring her actual self out.”

Not long after summer workouts began, Eckerman and fellow sophomore middle blocker Khat Bell took Hattis under their wing in an attempt to bring the personality out of the shy freshman.

“When she first got here, it was kind of like me, her and Eckerman,” Bell said of the trio.

Bell claims they are not like the Three Musketeers. Through their friendship, they have forced Hattis out of her shell and it has really shown.

“Sara, she’s just quirky,” Bell said. “She is not like Haley; she is not like me. She kind of fits in the middle; she balances us out.”

The No. 6 Longhorns will face No. 23 Illinois Friday in the first round of the Time Warner Cable Texas Invitational, hosted by the Longhorns at Gregory Gym. Over the weekend, Texas will play three games, one each against Illinois, the University of Cincinnati and the University of Central Florida.

Friday’s game against the Fighting Illini marks the sixth game against a ranked opponent so far this season. Against ranked opponents, the Longhorns are 3-2, the losses coming to No. 4 Penn State on the road and No. 14 Minnesota at home. As of last weekend’s match against Minnesota, Texas leads the nation in blocks per set at 3.46. This ranks fourth in the Texas record books.

The series record between the Illini and the Longhorns is tied at five games apiece. The two teams last met in December of 2010 when the Longhorns beat the Illini in five sets during the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship semi-final match played in Austin.

(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.