When Jerritt Elliott took over a floundering Texas volleyball program in 2001, the Longhorns were far enough below Nebraska’s success that the coach needed a telescope to view the Huskers’ perch at the top of the Big 12.
Texas was 10-18 the year before Elliot arrived, while Nebraska had just finished an undefeated season, winning the national championship in John Cook’s first year as head coach.
But over the next 15 seasons, Elliot built the program into a national contender, and eventually, a national champion. The first goal on that journey, Elliot said: beat Nebraska.
“For us, it was a hurdle to get over to win the conference,” Elliott said in a phone interview this week. “The hype was great for each community, people were excited about it.”
The rivalry that was the highlight of Big 12 volleyball resumes Sunday after a three-year hiatus when the No. 12-ranked Huskers (7-1) face defending national champion No. 6 Texas (5-2) in Austin at 1 p.m. in a match that can be seen on the Longhorn Network.
Nebraska and Texas dominated the Big 12, placing 1-2 in the league championship race eight times during the Huskers’ tenure in the conference from 1996-2010. The Huskers owned a 22-9 series record against Texas during that time, but much of the edge was built in the rivalry’s early years. NU won 12 straight matches from 1999-2005.
“We didn’t have the talent to compete with them,” Elliot said. “There were some bloody battles. We got beat up pretty good.”
But Elliott quickly began luring talent to Austin, turning Texas into a program to be reckoned with. The Longhorns earned their first win over Nebraska in five seasons when they handed then-No. 1 Nebraska a five-game loss in Austin to close the 2005 regular season after the Huskers started the year 28-0.
Texas finally broke through with a Big 12 championship in 2009, and the Longhorns’ recent résumé is the envy of nearly every college program. The Longhorns have reached the NCAA tournament final four in four of the last five seasons, and reached the elite eight seven years in a row as Austin has become a popular destination for some of the nation’s best volleyball talent.
“They’ve done a good job recruiting and they get a lot of the top recruits,” Cook said. “Look at their recruiting classes. Just like football. You wonder why they haven’t won more national championships. But they have the ability to get the best talent in the country.”
This year’s Longhorns again are star-studded, led by returning first-team All-American outside hitters Bailey Webster and Haley Eckerman. But Texas, despite returning five starters from last season’s NCAA championship team, has also done its share of lineup tinkering. Like Nebraska, the Longhorns have experimented with a 6-2 offensive system, which has led to some growing pains in attacking efficiency while freshman Chloe Collins has split time at setter with senior Hannah Allison.
The results have been a number of ups and downs in the early part of the season. Texas captured big wins at home over No. 1 Penn State and No. 8 Stanford, but dropped its opening match 3-1 at No. 7 Hawaii, then was swept by No. 18 Arizona State last weekend.
Nebraska is still working through its own lineup issues, particularly at middle blocker, where Meghan Haggerty, Cecilia Hall, and Alicia Ostrander continue to compete for two starting positions, with no player making a definitive move for the position yet.
With eight days since Nebraska’s last match against Iowa State, Husker coaches opened up starting positions during a week of workouts which Cook dubbed “Compete Week.”
“We’ve had a really good week of practice,” Cook said. “These guys get after it and they work really hard. We did a lot of really competitive stuff this week, so it was fun to see them compete.”
Sunday’s match will be the first meeting between the two schools since Texas’ 3-1 win in Austin in 2010, but both coaches said they’re taking steps to rekindle the rivalry on an annual basis. Elliott said he would like to schedule a yearly match to give the Longhorns an elite test in the middle of the season, but that would depend on how the Big Ten and Big 12 conference schedules are created in the future.
Texas is set to return to Lincoln in 2014 for a match in the Devaney Center, so for at least the next two seasons, fans will see the rebirth of a rivalry that defined a conference for more than a decade.
“Both programs are trying to win national championships, so it’s good to play each other,” Cook said. “There’s a lot of interest when we play Texas there. They’re sold out. We’ll sell out when they come here. It’s a good matchup for everybody. The fans will have an interest. There’s a lot of history between Texas and Nebraska going back, not only just volleyball, but football and other sports.”