No. 5 Volleyball set on championship journey
Nov. 27, 2011
Natalie England, TexasSports.com
AUSTIN, Texas -- The end result didn’t look unfamiliar, but the effort to get there was certainly extraordinary. The fifth-ranked Texas Longhorns kept reinventing themselves on Saturday night at Gregory Gym and needed four knee-knocking sets to topple rival Oklahoma and stake ownership to UT’s fourth Big 12 Championship crown in the past five years.
"We were not good tonight early on. We didn’t have a rhythm going. I didn’t think we were at a high level," head coach Jerritt Elliott said. "And they changed that."
Indeed, the Longhorns took the match on their shoulders and turned the tide. As they played for the final time before the start of next week’s NCAA Tournament, the Longhorns appeared to learn the lessons of an entire season in just one match -- one set, in fact.
With the match tied at one set apiece, the Sooners sauntered out to a 12-4 lead in the third. UT then reeled off an 11-3 run, which knotted the set at 15-all, and six of those points came off Haley Eckerman’s serve.
"The team started competing at a whole different level (in set three)," Elliott said. "We’ve talked about it. Some nights you’re not going to be as smooth as you normally are. And you’ve got to be able to find wins. This group did that. This is a huge confidence builder because this could happen in the NCAA Tournament."
It took a yeoman’s effort for the Longhorns. Three players finished with at least 11 kills, both Hannah Allison and Michelle Kocher logged double-digit assists and the Longhorns ended the night with 11 team blocks.
Bailey Webster’s 16 kills led all players, and Eckerman added 12 to go along with a season-high five service aces.
"We know we have a lot to offer as a team, even though we didn’t start off well," Webster said. "We showed that we’ve come a long way since the beginning of the season, just by fighting through it and playing as a team."
UT thrived in the fourth set with a 78 percent side-out effort and used four team blocks to maintain control at the net.
"That’s when you know we’re executing our game plan. And that means we’re coming together," senior Rachael Adams said of UT’s blocking in the fourth.
Early this season, adversity plagued the Longhorns, and their response to it was inconsistent. The Longhorns did, after all, drop a similar match in five sets to the Sooners back in September.
Elliott often challenges his team down the stretch, treating the final six matches of the regular season like an NCAA Tournament bracket. The match against the Sooners was a championship match -- both real and imagined.
The Big 12 championship trophy was the immediate, tangible reward, but the Longhorns’ proven toughness, exemplified in this roller-coaster match, may have a more lasting dividend as the season enters December, when a national champion is truly decided.
"I’m extremely excited for this team right now. They worked very hard," Elliott said. "We started the season at 8-4 at one point, and now we’re at 22-4. We’ve grown a lot as a team, and we’ve built a lot of trust."