Volleyball advances to third straight Final Four

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Almost a year to the day, Texas will get its shot at Penn State again.

The Longhorns fought through a tough weekend to advance to its third straight Final Four, taking down eighth-seeded Illinois 19-25, 26-24, 18-25, 25-14, 15-11 on Friday and 16th-seeded Purdue 18-25, 25-16, 25-15, 27-25 on Saturday at Gregory Gym.

Texas now heads to Kansas City, Mo. on Thursday with a rematch against the fourth-seeded Nittany Lions, who overtook the Longhorns in five sets in last year’s national championship match. The following match on the other side of the bracket will pit sixth-seeded USC, who upset Stanford 3-2 in the Elite Eight, and Cal, who swept Washington to advance.

The Longhorns landed four players on the NCAA Austin Regional All-Tournament Team including junior middle blocker Rachael Adams, senior middle blocker Jennifer Doris and junior setter Michelle Kocher. Senior outside hitter Juliann Faucette won the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.

Friday’s match against Illinois started off the wrong way for Texas, as it dropped the first set and was largely outplayed in the first three sets. The Fighting Illini were the only team to beat the Longhorns at Gregory Gym this season, sweeping Texas on Sept. 3.

As it did earlier this season, Illinois used its serving to exploit Texas’ ball control and keep the Longhorns out of system. Texas was able to storm back in the fourth and fifth sets sparked by two service aces from senior outside hitter Lauren Dickson and a hustle play by junior outside hitter Amber Roberson that led to a replay. Faucette and Adams both finished the match with 19 kills.

“Anytime you’re in a five-gamer, it’s exciting, especially on our home court,” Faucette said. “Our fans were loud and helped us out a lot. Our team thrives of those momentum swings, thrives off those defensive plays, so when we can create those moments, that’s when we were able to push back.”

Saturday’s match against Purdue started off just as poorly for Texas. The Boilermakers upset top-seeded Florida the night before and held the Longhorns to .269 hitting in the first set.

Texas dominated the next two sets and climbed back from a 15-20 hole in the fourth set, holding off three Purdue match points before taking the match.

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring effort of the tournament was from Purdue senior setter and captain Jaclyn Hart. Hart got injured at the end of the first set, and the Boilermakers were not able to rebound until the fourth game. She spent the rest of the match on the bench with an ice pack, giving tips to freshman setter Rachel Davis during timeouts. Hart’s story, however, goes well beyond the match itself.

Hart’s father, William, was diagnosed with cancer about six weeks ago. She spent one or two days at practice per week, then would hurry on home to be with her father. With the diagnosis kept mostly within the team, Purdue stormed into the tournament winning nine of its last 12 matches. After Purdue’s improbable win against Florida — and less than 24 hours before the match with Texas — Hart received a call at midnight informing her that her father had died.

“I have never seen an individual handle that type of a family situation better in my entire life,” Purdue head coach Dave Shondell said. “[William] watched her play tonight. He was so proud of her. Her story is bigger than her injury tonight. She has persevered this season better than anyone I've ever known. She became my hero this season.”

Home court advantage proved to be a big boon for the Longhorns through the tournament. After a dismal showing by fans in the first two rounds, both Friday and Saturday boasted near-sell outs.

“I looked up to the crowd today, and it was the first time I felt like we had a complete program with back to back near sell outs,” Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “The support from the community has been tremendous. I just want to make sure I thank the city of Austin and Longhorn fans for being a part of this program.”

Though Thursday’s match against Penn State will have a tinge of vengeance attached to it, the two teams are very different from last year, yet very similar to each other. Shondell said the two teams may be the most athletic in the country, yet error prone due to the youth. Both teams lost All-Americans from last year’s squad including Destinee Hooker and Ashley Engle from Texas and Megan Hodge and Alisha Glass from Penn State, but returned some in Faucette and Blair Brown from Penn State. They both lost major first-year returners in Bailey Webster at Texas and Darcy Dorton at Penn State to ACL injuries right before the season. And both teams have lost the same number of matches.

Texas is 6-9 all-time against Penn State, though haven’t beaten the Nittany Lions since 1989.