Volleyball fights on to NCAA Regional final
Dec. 9, 2011
Natalie England, TexasSports.com
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- “Keep swinging” was the Friday night theme for the Texas Longhorns. Against the balanced and scrappy Kentucky Wildcats, energized by more than 4,000 rowdy fans at their own Memorial Coliseum, nothing came easy and nothing went according to plan.
But that’s just the reality of NCAA postseason play. And few know that better than the Texas Volleyball program, which is now the only team in the country to advance to the elite round of eight in each of the past six seasons following its 3-1 victory against Kentucky in the NCAA Lexington Regional semifinal.
Top-seeded UT will meet UCLA in Saturday’s regional final; the Bruins swept Penn State, winners of the past four national titles, in the other semifinal match.
The Longhorns won the first set against the Wildcats, dropped the second and then claimed the third and fourth frames, but all three of their set victories were by the minimum two points.
“It was a heavyweight fight. This match could have gone either way,” UT head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “We made some plays at the end. I was very pleased with how we fought tonight, and specifically how we battled.”
UT had to rely on every weapon in its arsenal to combat a Kentucky team that boasted four players with at least 11 kills and a libero, Stephanie Klefot, who dug 21 balls. Bailey Webster led all hitters with 17 kills, freshman Haley Eckerman contributed 16 and senior middle blocker Rachael Adams had 15 kills to go along with three blocks.
“This is one of those games you love to play in, because you have to gravel for every point,” Webster said.
And the Longhorns were literally on their knees, scraping and clawing for every point. With the match tied at one set apiece, Kentucky electrified the arena when the Wildcats tied the set at 24-24 on a surprise dump from Wildcats setter Christine Hartmann.
With the energy thumping, the Longhorns seized three of the next four points to win the set, highlighted by an out-of-system Eckerman termination on set point.
“I think we did a great job of sticking together in a crazy environment,” Eckerman said. “You just have to calm down and work through it.”
The value of three-straight trips to at least the national semifinals is largely seen through gained experience and resolve. On this night, the Longhorns, known as an intimidating and physical offensive juggernaut, turned that collective experience into focus and a determination to beat their opponent however possible.
Kentucky coach Craig Skinner said he felt that if his Wildcats had more digs and more aces, they would be the victors. As it happened, UT finished with 58 digs to Kentucky’s 51, and the Longhorns also had one more service ace.
“The one thing I did not expect tonight was Texas to play the floor defense they did,” Skinner said. “We hit some rockets, and they came up with them. That was probably the difference in the match.”
Elliott said he was proud of the team chemistry his team displayed against Kentucky, and that was particularly apparent in the fourth set. After Kentucky went up 10-9, Elliott inserted setter Michelle Kocher, who has created a college career by being calm and steady.
Kocher’s communication and distribution was critical down the stretch, as neither team had more than a one-point advantage, and that presence seemed to free the Longhorns to play without fear.
Freshman Madelyn Hutson, a formidable blocker who is becoming more reliable with her swings, planted a narrow cross-court kill to knot the match at 20. Adams pursued a free ball all the way onto Kentucky’s side of the net, and the Wildcats eventually sent that ball long to again tie the match at 21.
UT won four of the next six points, highlighted by powerful kills from Webster, Adams and Sha’Dare McNeal, to advance to its sixth-straight regional final.
“When it gets that close and things are on the line, it’s really important to stay disciplined,” Webster said. “In a situation like that you have to stay calm and just do what you’ve been doing the entire (season).”