Texas is one of two teams to reach the Final Four in each of the last three years. Thanks to the other — four-time defending national champion Penn State — the Longhorns don’t have any titles to show for it.
Now they might have what they need to get over that last hump. Head coach Jerritt Elliott and his staff have reeled in the country’s best recruiting class, a group that includes three of the top 13 prospects: No. 2 Katherine Bell, No. 5 Haley Eckerman and No. 13 Madelyn Hutson. This collection of blue-chippers marks the sixth consecutive year Elliott brings in a recruiting class ranked in the top five.
“Every year, there’s about 10 to 15 players that can help us win a national championship,” Elliot said. “Being a part of the University of Texas, in general, you have some advantages being a part of such a rich tradition and athletic program.”
This class also represents the Longhorns’ ability to recruit nationally as Bell (Texas), Eckerman (Iowa) and Hutson (Tennessee) are from three different states. Despite the distance that separates their hometowns, next season won’t be the first time they have played together. In 2009, they were teammates at the FIVB Girls Youth Volleyball World Championship in Thailand.
Now that they’re set to reunite at Texas, they have created a logjam of sorts. The Longhorns return four starters from last year’s 27-6 squad and not only welcome the No. 1 recruiting class, but also return two highly touted members of previous classes; Ashley Bannister and Bailey Webster. Bannister, a freshman, suffered a season-ending ankle injury after playing only seven matches last season. Webster, a sophomore and the No. 1 high school prospect from the class of 2009, saw her season come to an abrupt end when she sustained a severe knee injury during a preseason practice. Both Bannister and Webster were given a medical redshirt.
“It’s going to be the most competitive gym we’ve ever had here at Texas,” Elliott said. “We really have 12 players that can step on the floor and start. I’ve never had that before at any program I’ve been a part of.”
Bell is certainly one of those 12 players. Elliott even compared her to two-time All-American outside hitter Destinee Hooker and claims she can reach as high as 10’8”. She averaged 7.4 kills, 2.6 blocks and 2.2 digs per set at North Mesquite High School. Not only is she talented and productive, but versatile as well. She can play both middle blocker and outside hitter.
“It’ll be kind of fun to see where she ends up because she is so talented,” Elliott said. “She can be one of the best middle blockers in the country with time because she is exceptionally fast to the ball.”
Eckerman, exclusively an outside hitter, also drew flattering comparisons from Elliott, who called her “a similar player to Juliann [Faucette].” Faucette, like Hooker, also had a distinguished career at Texas, earning first-team All-American honors twice and first-team All-Big 12 honors four times. Eckerman, who had nearly 2,500 kills during her high school career in Waterloo, Iowa, will have her hands full trying to crack the starting lineup. Faucette departs, but senior Amber Roberson is back, while both Bannister and Webster are outside hitters. But Elliott remains confident in her ability.
“She’s got the capability of taking over games at any point in time because of what she can do physically,” Elliott said. “She has really good control of the ball, she moves around really well as an attacker. She’s a smart player. She has a high volleyball IQ.”
Hutson, a 6’5” middle blocker from Brentwood, Tenn., was ranked lower than Bell and Eckerman, but may have the upper hand on them by the start of the Longhorns’ season. She graduated high school a semester early and has practiced with her Texas teammates all spring.
“[Coming in a semester early] was huge for her and her growth,” Elliott said. “Middle blockers are one of the more difficult ones to come in and be great because of the speed of the game. It usually takes a year or two to get really acclimated strength-wise and [learn to] make the right reads.”
Thanks to these three and others such as Bannister and Webster, Texas will have a young team this fall, one that features only three seniors and nine underclassmen — four freshmen and five sophomores. While there might be a shortage of experience on this Longhorn squad, it won’t be short on talent.
“Anytime you make a run at a national championship you usually need a freshman or two in the lineup, and they need to play well,” Elliott said.
In the Longhorns’ case, they could have three or four.