Senior salute: Bethany Howden and Mira Topic
In the fall of 2001, two Texas freshmen that had come from both near and far stepped on the Forty Acres for the first time. Perhaps head coach Jerritt Elliott knew he had something special in that recruiting class, but it's unlikely that even he could anticipate the future success of the class's two biggest stars.
Longhorn seniors Bethany Howden and Mira Topic came to The University of Texas with common goals, but from vastly different backgrounds. Howden came to Texas from the hills of Westlake right here in Austin, while Topic was a 22-hour plane ride from her home in Kastela Kambelovac, Croatia. However, the two unlikely freshman roommates came to Texas for one reason, and that was to bring Texas back to national prominence.
"I came here as a freshman with one goal and that was to win a national championship," Topic said. "That is still my goal and I think we just need to work hard to accomplish that goal."
As a freshman Topic was still learning the English language, but had no trouble adjusting to the American game. She garnered First-Team All-Big 12 honors and shared Freshman All-America honors with Howden - the first of many All-America honors garnered by the duo - which gave Texas two players on the prestigious six-member squad chosen by ASICS/Volleyball Magazine. The twosome were also named UT volleyball Co-MVP's in 2001, while Howden set a UT freshman record in hitting percentage (.356) and led the team with 153 blocks. Topic headlined the stat sheet with a team leading 534 kills, 347 digs, and 60 service aces.
"When they came in we knew they were two big-time players that we could build our program around," Elliott said of his expectations of the two. "We thought that we could be a very good team by the time that they were seniors."
After an excellent beginning to two storied careers, Topic and Howden added to their long lists of accolades in their second season. As sophomores, they both were named First-Team All-Big 12, with Topic also earning Third-Team All-America accolades by the AVCA. It was during that same sophomore campaign that Howden had to make the transition from her comfortable middle blocker spot to outside hitter. With Howden and Topic both on the outside Texas posted a 23-9 record and played its way into the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Then in 2003 as juniors the dynamic duo played with gusto as their team suffered set-back after set-back. Howden recorded her first 500-kill season and Topic continued to push her name further up the UT career records. The combination of Howden and Topic earned AVCA Honorable Mention All-America, AVCA First-Team All-Central Region honors and First-Team All-Big 12 honors as the Horns narrowly missed an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
After a season marred by disappointment in 2003, the pair was bound and determined to make their senior year memorable. Entering this season with a clean slate and a roster chock-full of young talent, Howden and Topic had their minds set on the glory and goal that had eluded them thus far in their careers at Texas: a national championship. The leadership of the two seniors and their influence on the otherwise young Texas squad sparked the Longhorns to a 16-0 run to start the season, and a Top 10 ranking for much of the season.
The hard-hitting and improved back row play of Topic and the presence of Howden in the middle, who is back at her middle blocker spot for the first time since her freshman season, have been keys in this storybook year. Howden who entered the season fifth on the all-time kills list has moved to third and has delighted the hometown crowd with her play.
Meanwhile, Topic has put together her own assault on the record books and soundly placed her name among the nation's elite, as she makes a strong push for National Player of the Year accolades. Topic has been named Big 12 player of the week four times - a record for Big 12 volleyball players - and after opening the season second on the all-time Texas kills list, moved past Longhorn legend Dee Sance into first place against Kansas on Nov. 17.
Although, the two seniors have moved on from their days in the dorm as freshman roommates, they have not grown apart.
"Even though we're both living in different places now, I think that our roommate experience really helped us get to know each other and respect each other, and learn about the other's culture," Howden said.
"Bethany was great at helping me out and introducing me to the American culture," Topic recalled. "We talked a lot when I was homesick and it really brought us together. I am so happy that both of us made it through all four years when we've had a tough road to get here."
It's that respect that has made Howden and Topic a prominent pair on the court and in the classroom, where they are both getting their degrees in corporate communication. Topic who came to Texas while still learning English, is on pace to graduate this December - a full semester early - earning her degree in only three-and-a-half years.
The paths of Mira Topic and Bethany Howden crossed at Texas three short years ago, but when they leave The Forty Acres they will take with them so much more than volleyball memories.
"As a coach, it is going to be really sad to lose Mira and Bethany," Elliott said of his pair of All-Americans. "But it's great to send them out into the world with a greater wealth of knowledge of what it has to offer. Part of having a player come into your program is helping them not only develop as a player on the court, but off the court as well."
As their volleyball careers at Texas begin to wind down, it is obvious that Howden and Topic both have left in indelible mark on Texas volleyball history. The two will be remembered long after they have played their last match in the Burnt