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Photo Credit: Elisabeth Dillon | Daily Texan Staff

Division I volleyball means tough practices, nerve-wracking games and ever-present pressure to perform.

In the whirlwind that is volleyball season, Texas team members have found a calm leader in senior Sha’Dare McNeal.

She’s the one her teammates pinpoint as their quiet leader, a mellow force on the court even in the midst of chaos.

That laid-back attitude is signature of McNeal’s Southern California roots, a self-described innate personality trait that has served her well both on and off the court.

“I feel like it’s just my personality,” McNeal said. “I’m just a calm person and I really don’t let anything rattle me on the court.”

Entering college as the No. 5 recruit in the nation, there were ample opportunities for rattling. Yet McNeal swept pressure to the side, earning a spot on the 2010 Texas Invitational and Burnt Orange Classic all-tournament team as well as Academic All-Big 12 second team honors. In her second year on the team, she started all 33 matches and played in all 118 sets.

“Coming in, it was just a new experience,” she said. “I was ready to play, and I just embraced being on the team and learning a lot my freshman year.”

Four years and many games later, McNeal has stepped up into a leadership position on the team, guiding her younger teammates with her level- headed style.

“I’m a leader by example, so it’s just getting the girls ready for practice and telling them the goals that we have,” McNeal said.

Head coach Jerritt Elliott said seeing McNeal’s development has been a highlight of this season.

“She’s a big part of this program and has developed into a leader,” he said. “As a coach, you want to see players develop into confident young women, and I’m just pleased with where she stands with her confidence in herself and the lessons she can teach our younger players.”

Her home season could hardly have wrapped up on a higher note. McNeal had the last kill against West Virginia, whacking the ball over the net to conclude the sweep, which launched an explosion of applause and cheers from fans who longed to see the senior finish it up the right way.

Her team experience has left much deeper memories than squeaky gym floors, knee pads and plenty of airplane rides.

“It’s [been about] maturing as a person,” McNeal said. “Being around girls that are becoming my sisters. I like the closeness of our team. We all just mesh really well together, and it’s a joy practicing and playing with them.”

The No. 3 Longhorns dashed through the season with one conference loss, earning a lauded 23-4 record and a Big 12 championship trophy to commemorate their success.

As they head into this week’s NCAA Tournament, beginning Thursday, McNeal said the team is ready for the challenge new opponents and more pressure will provide.

“I feel really confident,” she said. “We’ve had really good practices leading up to it. It’s really exciting for us. A national championship has been the team goal for the past four years since I’ve been here.”

Titles, tournaments and trophies set aside, McNeal is sentimental about her last year competing for the Longhorns.

“I’ll miss everything,” she said. “The practices, the games. Everything.” 

Printed on Thursday, November 29, 2012 as: McNeal manages calm leadership

Senior utility Sha’Dare McNeal made her presence known with a career-high nine blocks, surpassing her previous record of seven blocks in 2010. McNeal also posted a season-high 13 digs and nine kills, just missing a triple-double in a performance that greatly aided the Longhorns in a victory over Oklahoma. 

McNeal credited much of her success to the vibrancy of the crowd.

“Just [playing] off the fans was a big thing and coming into the match really energetic, focused, knowing what we had to do on our side of the net, and executing it,” she said. 

Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott highlighted McNeal’s performance as one of the strongest of the night.

“I thought Sha’Dare McNeal had a career night, not only in terms of attempts but also her blocking,” he said. “I haven’t seen her block like that in her career.”

Consistent error improvement
Texas committed a total of only 10 errors, four of which were service errors, a vast improvement from previous games. Texas committed 10 service errors against Illinois and 13 against Cincinnati during the Time Warner Cable Texas Invitational tournament last weekend. 

Elliott noted service errors were one particular area the Longhorns needed to polish up before heading into Big 12 play. 

“We pretty much scored 45 percent of the points for the other teams,” Elliott said of that tournament’s service errors. “It is part of being young and part of understanding how to manage a game. It is key for us.”

Blocks remain strong point
Texas ranked second in the nation in blocking heading into Saturday’s game, and the Longhorns upheld their strong blocking reputation against Oklahoma.  Sophomore middle blocker/outside hitter Khat Bell tied her season-high of five blocks, while junior outside hitter Bailey Webster had three solo blocks. Sophomore outside hitter Haley Eckerman had one block along with McNeal’s career-high nine blocks. 

“Overall, I thought we played consistent the entire night and things that we have been working on in practice carried over in terms of our blocking and sequencing,” Elliott said.  “We scored high in transition and we did a nice job on the defensive side.”

Printed on Monday, September 24, 2012 as: McNEal leads Horns against Oklahoma

After an injury prevented her from playing much of the first half of the season, junior Sha’Dare McNeal hit her stride.

She led the No. 9 Longhorns (20-4, 13-1 Big 12) to their 13th consecutive win on Saturday night, defeating Missouri on the road, 3-1.

McNeal had 15 kills and .750 hitting percentage. She was also vital on defense, with four total blocks and 11 digs.

In the first set, Texas allowed the Tigers to take a 14-12 lead. But sophomore Bailey Webster’s two kills and a block aided Texas in a 10-3 run, giving the Longhorns the lead. A kill by Webster ended the set, 25-19. She had 14 kills in the match The Longhorns let the Tigers back into the match in the second set. Texas was up 24-21, but three errors by the team were costly and Missouri won the set, 28-26.

The Longhorns were on a mission in the third set. They took a 10-2 lead after five blocks and never looked back, winning the set 25-9. Freshman Madelyn Hutson had a career-high total with seven total blocks, and the team had a total of six blocks in the third set.

The momentum from the third-set win transferred into the third when the Longhorns took a 18-7 lead, aided by two kills and two blocks by senior Rachael Adams. As the set came to a close, Texas refused to let down, and two kills by Webster and two blocks by Adams finished the set 25-9.

The Longhorns out-hit Missouri .323 to .137 and out-blocked them 15.0 to 7.0.

Head coach Jerritt Elliott said at this point in the season, it is sometimes difficult to keep the team motivated. But the Longhorns are still on top of the Big 12 standings with two games left in conference play.

Printed on Monday, November 21, 2011 as: McNeal leads Longhorns to road victory

Here are three observations from Texas’ three set sweep of Texas Tech.

Hannah Allison is a key part of this team

Allison had 15 assists in the first set. She was all over the floor and did not give up on the ball throughout the night. She even had two service aces in the second set. Without Allison, Texas would not have had such a successful night both offensively and defensively. Rachael Adams finished the game with a .600 hitting percentage. In the first set, she had 15 assists and in the second set, she had two serving aces. She finished the game with 36 assists and five digs. She’s taken on a leadership role with her improved play and team attitude.

Sha’Dare McNeal is back

In her first start since opening night against Pepperdine on Sept. 26, McNeal made her presence known on the court — and it wasn’t because of her knee brace.

She had an incredible down the line kill that made the score 23-17 in the third.

“I figured that Rachael’s hitting numbers would go up 100 to 150 points with Sha’Dare next to her because she pulls a blocker with her and makes it a lot more challenging with that,” said head coach Jerritt Elliott. “With the numbers that Sha’Dare is able to put up and Rachael to go up for big numbers and get good balance, it was really nice to see.”

McNeal said that she is learning to trust her knee again.

“It’s been kind of a challenge,” she said. “But everyday [I’m] getting in the practice room and I’m working to get where I was.”

Low on Blocks, High on Digs

Elliott expected that McNeal’s return would lead to an increased amount of blocks for Texas.

But Texas had 43 digs and three team blocks. Amber Roberson had nine digs while libero Sydney Yogi and McNeal both had eight. The team’s defense has continued to get better and better this season.

Although blocks weren’t necessarily the team’s strong suit tonight, the team still dominated.

“We’ve got so much velocity and we’re digging balls far off the net and making it challenging,” Elliott said. “I would have thought we would have won the blocking game tonight, but we didn’t.”

He was impressed with how the team was able to slow down balls by getting touch blocks and soft blocks .

“There wasn’t a lot of balls hit to the wood and when that happens, we’re pretty successful,” Elliott said.

Junior Sha’Dare McNeal is back for Texas, after fighting an injury all season long. McNeal returned to the lineup two weeks ago against Oklahoma, and is now almost completely healthy. With her back in the rotation the Longhorns finally have their preferred lineup on the court every match, as McNeal provides a ton of flexibility at the utility position.

Photo Credit: Corey Leamon | Daily Texan Staff

 The Longhorns have 14 players on their roster and because of an influx of youth and a key injury, all 14 players have seen see court time. With their lineup in constant transition, it’s hard for the team to find any consistency.

Much of the disturbance in the rotation has been caused by an injury to Sha’Dare McNeal. McNeal is the team’s utility player, meaning she can play any position on the court at any time. This makes her the Longhorns’ most flexible player and perhaps the most valuable to the team’s system.

“Sha’Dare’s return is going to make a big difference for us for many different reasons — it will solidify our passing a little bit more and allow us to have more balance, while allowing us to do some different things offensively,” said head coach Jerritt Elliott in mid-September. “But right now we are confident, the team is playing well. Again, we don’t miss a big beat with Sha’Dare out. But again, she’s definitely a big piece.”

But now McNeal is back, returning to action two weeks ago in a loss to Oklahoma. But the best news for the team is that she is presently almost 100 percent healthy and ready to solidify the rotation.

“It’s exciting, Sha’Dare is almost all the way healthy right now, so now we’re starting to look at her as part of our lineup,” Elliott said. “Sha’Dare can do a lot of different things — she can play on the right for us and gives us some options.”

The change will alter the lineup significantly, allowing Texas to be as flexible as possible with the rotations they have on the court for the offensive and defensive situations.

McNeal’s return will shorten the playing time of a few of her teammates though; most notably Bailey Webster, who has been playing on the right side in McNeal’s usual station. Webster has been playing quite proficiently on that side, after retuning this year from an injury that sidelined her all of last season. It will be tough to get her off the court, and Elliott will have to find her playing time elsewhere.

“Obviously Bailey [Webster] is playing very well over there, so we’ll have to figure out exactly what to do with her, but having Sha’Dare back gives us some balance, and gives us an ability to do different things,” Elliott said. “While ultimately giving us the ability to have our best pin volleyball player out there for all six rotations.”

McNeal’s return isn’t the only change to the Longhorns lineup recently, because in the game against Texas A&M last Wednesday, outside hitter Khat Bell was moved to middle blocker. The change gives the team a stronger presence at the net defensively and reduces the number of errors they will have on that side of the ball.

“We have moved Khat Bell to the middle,” Elliott said. “We’re not done investing her as an outside hitter because I feel that’s where she will ultimately be. But right now we were giving up too many points on the defense side and on out-of-system errors. Ultimately, we were trying to get a little more balance as well. With the move we were able to get more balance in a lot of different areas that night.”

The Longhorns hope that all of these lineup changes will come together beautifully as they take on Texas Tech in Gregory at 7 p.m. tonight.

Printed on Wednesday, October 12, 2011 as: McNeal's back, rotation finally set

Preview

Rachael Adams prepares to serve during a match this season. Texas will need Adams to play well now more than ever with Sha’Dare McNeal injured.

Photo Credit: Mary Kang | Daily Texan Staff

After going 3-0 this weekend in Austin, the No. 8 Longhorns are heading to Fort Worth to take on TCU in their last game before conference play.

Although the Longhorns had a good weekend, there are still areas where the team could improve, especially when it comes to consistency.

“We’ve got to be able to find a little bit more balance,” said head coach Jerritt Elliott. “There’s a lot of things we haven’t even implemented yet that we’ll start trying to get a little bit more here in the next two to three weeks.”

He said the team’s leaders are going to step up and help Texas be more consistent. But the coaching staff is pleased with how the team has been performing.

“Ultimately, this group is working on being consistent for longer periods of time, and we showed some really good spurts for periods,” and we emotionally lost that, so it’s something that we will continue to work on,” Elliott said.

Although 6-3 isn’t perfect, all three losses were to top 10 teams and many players on the team have been performing well. These young Longhorns know what they need to do to get better.

An important component that the Longhorns are missing is junior Sha’Dare McNeal. McNeal started all 33 games last season but injured her right knee earlier this year. It is unclear when she will return.

“She is our most important player in regards to what she can do for our team,” Elliott said. “We have some different pieces that are a little bit awkward.”

But Elliott said once McNeal comes back, the team will play at an even higher level. Her return will strengthen the Longhorns’ passing and provide more offensive variety and creativity.

“Right now we are confident, the team is playing well,” Elliott said. “Again, we don’t miss a big beat with Sha’Dare out. But again she’s definitely a big piece.”

The coaches made the decision to be patient with McNeal as she overcomes her injury. In addition to missing McNeal, Elliott said more middle blocker production was needed this past weekend, especially from senior Rachael Adams.

“We’re a young group and if we continue to battle that’s all we can ask for,” Elliott said.

Printed on September 20, 2011 as: Consistency key as Horns set to take on TCU

Sophomore Sha’Dare McNeal is a little hard to pin down and define.

McNeal teeters on shy and quiet, but claims she’s the opposite when around people she knows really well.

She used to play the guitar, violin and piano, but her current connection with music is in a near perpendicular capacity as the team’s unofficial co-DJ, in charge of putting together pregame mixes that include songs like “Teach Me How to Dougie” by the Cali Swag District and “No Hands” by Waka Flocka Flame.

Statistically, McNeal is consistent, rarely posting numbers that outlie her regular performance. Even her position — listed as a utility player — is vague at best.

But McNeal’s impact on the court has been substantial, especially to the more discerning eyes.

“Sha’Dare, as I told her at the beginning of the preseason, is probably one of the most important players because of what she does on first contact,” said head coach Jerritt Elliott. “There’s a lot of things she doesn’t get credit for, but she’s a huge part of our success, and her growth has been very impressive.”

McNeal’s numbers have been quietly steady across the board. Among the noninjured players on the team, she is second in assists per set (.27), third in service aces (15), digs per set (1.92), blocks per set (.78) and fourth in kills per set (1.86).

“I’m versatile,” McNeal said. “I just play my role. If anybody gets hurt or anything that happens, I can play that position.”

McNeal’s ability to stay on the court is likely the most telling statistic on an injury-prone Longhorn squad, as she and senior outside hitter Juliann Faucette are the only players to have played in every set of the season. And while the continuity has undoubtedly helped the team, it has also been a major part of McNeal’s development.

“From last year and this year, I’ve had to play a different role,” McNeal said. “At first I was very nervous that I was going to start and stuff but through time and playing, we’ve [all] grown.”

The San Diego native came to UT as a middle blocker and played in that capacity last year. But Elliott sensed that McNeal could develop into a back-row threat, and after the last ball dropped in 2009, the coaching staff worked to convert her into an all-around player. Growing pains may have been tough, but in hindsight, McNeal would have it no other way.

“During high school and club, I never played in the back row,” McNeal said. “So transitioning from the spring and learning that I’d be playing in real matches was real nerve-wrecking.
Now it’s my favorite part of the game.”

McNeal’s job off the court may have just as much impact as her job on it. A lifelong music junkie, she teams up with Faucette to compile sound tracks to blast in the locker room to get the team pumped up before games.

“Music’s a big part of my life,” McNeal said. “A lot of the girls noticed that I always have my iPod and my headphones on. Music is just what I surround myself with all the time.”

McNeal and Faucette’s relationship goes back to the time when the duo were teammates on the Epic Volleyball Club. Faucette consequently played a big part in luring McNeal from Southern California to Central Texas.

“When I came here, I knew Jay [Faucette] was going to be here,” McNeal said. “She was really honest with me. She [also] showed me a different side of Texas and just how family-oriented the fans were, and I just felt really comfortable here.”

As the Longhorns head into Saturday’s match against Oklahoma at Gregory Gym, they likely couldn’t care less whether McNeal can be defined. The free-flowing, versatile nature of the 6-foot-1-inch utility seems to be serving Texas just fine.