Published Thursday, December 12, 2013 at 7:06 pm / Updated at 7:20 pm
volleyball
Long on talent, ’Horns find drive to repeat
American vs. Texas
When: 5 p.m. Friday
Where: Devaney Center, Lincoln

LINCOLN — Talent rarely is in question for the Texas volleyball program. Since Jerritt Elliott took over as head coach after leaving Southern California in 2001, the Longhorns’ roster has been stocked full of All-Americans.

But before Texas could make greatness a routine, it had to embrace a routine to be great.

That’s not ambiguous, fortune-cookie coachspeak, said junior opposite hitter Haley Eckerman. Before last season’s run to the national championship, the Longhorns had the reputation of a team that couldn’t find the poise and composure to match its impressive physical skill.

By embracing the day-to-day steps to greatness, Texas reached college volleyball’s peak.

“Especially this season, and toward the end of the past season, we’ve steadied out,” said Eckerman, who leads Texas with 4.18 kills per set. “We’re not chaotic or all over the place. We’ve learned to kind of go through the basics and focus on what we need to do to win, and not (focus on) what the other team is doing.”

It’s a mature statement from a mature team that has the experience to match its talent. No. 1 Texas (25-2), the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament, comes to this weekend’s Lincoln Regional with five starters back from last year’s title club. The returnees include Eckerman, the two-time Big 12 player of the year, and senior All-American outside hitter Bailey Webster.

Knowing that the pressure to repeat has put cracks in the foundation of previous champions, Texas shied away from discussing the big picture coming into the season. Instead, the Longhorns braced for another title run by playing a brutal nonconference schedule. They lost at Hawaii in the season opener, but beat Penn State and Stanford, then the top two ranked teams in the country, in Austin the next weekend.

“We knew, especially at the beginning of the season, there was a lot of talk about that. ‘Are we going to repeat?’ ” Webster said. “But, as a team, we didn’t speak of it. We just knew that we needed to focus on the Big 12 because that’s what we had at first. We focused on that and accomplished that goal. Like we do every year, we just set goals for ourselves. Our next goal is to win the championship.”

Despite bringing back so many returners from 2012, Texas had to reform an identity this season. Senior setter Hannah Allison had to hold off a challenge from freshman Chloe Collins to keep the starting job; freshman middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu stepped in to replace departed senior Sha’Dare McNeal; and a bevy of hungry, prep All-Americans keep the starters from complacency in workouts. It’s added up to 21 straight wins for Texas.

If Texas gets by American (34-2) Friday evening, the Longhorns will need to win a rematch in order to reach their fifth final four in six seasons. Texas beat Nebraska in five sets in Austin on Sept. 22 and won a five-setter with San Diego on Aug. 31.

When asked Thursday how he expects his team to handle a potential showdown with its former conference rival, Elliott calmly flipped the script, implying the Longhorns wouldn’t be the ones playing with the weight of expectations.

Dealing with the spotlight, he said, is another routine his team has grasped.

“We’ve been through what Nebraska’s going through right now,” he said. “It’s been awhile since they’ve gotten to the final four, and they’re at home, and they’ve got a lot of pressure to be able to please these fans. We’ve been through this, and we know what our routines are, and we’ll use that to our advantage.”

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