The general consensus is that this year Texas volleyball will be great. But after three Final Four appearances in four years without a crown to show for it, what makes this year the year for the Longhorns?
“We don’t really look at the rankings. We just stick within our team and work hard,” said junior libero Sarah Palmer. “We are just trying to play to the best of our ability so that we can prove to the nation that we can be one of the best teams in the country.”
The Longhorns began their season ranked No. 2 and have since racked up a 4-0 start with a 1-0 Big 12 conference record. This is all despite losing several key starters to graduation, including libero Sydney Yogi. However, sophomore middle blocker Khat Bell will be returning to the Longhorn’s starting lineup after she was knocked out with a season-ending ACL injury against Kansas last fall.
“I feel great, 100 percent ready to go,” Bell said.
As the No. 2 ranked incoming freshman before her injury, Bell recorded 184 kills and posted a hitting average of .243 through 20 matches.
“We know what to do as far as correcting our defense, correcting our offense and communicating for sure is a big thing for us,” Bell said. “We are more confident in what we are doing, what we want to accomplish. We get the picture now.”
In addition, the Longhorns received a group of very talented freshmen, including top-ranked incoming freshman Molly McCage, a middle blocker who was named the Big 12 preseason Player of the Year, and Sara Hattis, who was a three-sport athlete in high school. Hattis was a top 100 basketball prospect before deciding to play for volleyball at Texas. Kat Brooks, Nicole Dalton and Amy Neal round out the recruiting class.
School has barely started, and the Longhorns are already “perfect,” having won their first four matches by the minimum 12 sets, including a win over Big 12 opponent West Virginia. The Longhorns swept LSU, Cal Poly and San Diego in the season’s opening tournament on the 40 Acres.
The real test early this season will come when the Longhorns travel to University Park, Penn., to compete in the Nike Big Four Classic and will face No. 4 Penn State and No. 18 Florida. The Nittany Lions will probably be the highest ranked team the Longhorns face all season. They acquired four national championships in the past six seasons, including a 2009 victory against the Longhorns in five sets.
“I think this year is different. We have a lot of people who can fill in every spot,” said Haley Eckerman, sophomore outside hitter. “I’m excited for a new season ... to see how great our team can be.”