By Corey Tatel
Throughout this fall, there have been grumblings around campus about the state of Texas fall sports programs. Many students have voiced their disappointment that the University of Texas at Austin doesn’t appear to have a dominant sport on campus this season. But the fact is that UT does, and students need to open their eyes and recognize that. Yes, this is a rebuilding year for our football team, but the Texas volleyball team is ranked fifth in the country and has only lost one game. It’s time the UT community and the city of Austin acknowledge the consistent excellence of the volleyball program and show the team more support.
Texas volleyball is no stranger to the NCAA in Women’s Volleyball elite. Over the history of the program, Texas has won three National Championships, 12 Southwest Conference Championships, and seven Big 12 Championships. The Longhorns qualified for 25 NCAA tournaments out of a possible 28 years and have appeared in eight NCAA Final Fours.
Texas’s rich volleyball tradition of winning dates back to the days of legendary head coach Mick Haley. Under Haley, the Longhorns won 12 Southwest Conference Championships in a span of 14 years and were crowned National Champions twice.
Haley established Texas as a national powerhouse and put the volleyball program on the map. He made Texas volleyball what it is today, before leaving to coach the United States Olympic team, and eventually the volleyball team at the University of Southern California.
What many people may not realize is that current head coach Jerritt Elliott has not only continued what Haley started, but has built upon it. Although Haley holds an incredible international reputation because of his history with Texas, as well as USC and the Olympic team, Elliott is also establishing a historic legacy in Austin. Longhorns are watching history in the making in Gregory Gymnasium as Elliott and the volleyball program continue their incredible run that began in 2007, and the majority of the Austin community appears to have no idea.
While Elliott took over as head coach in 2001, his first six seasons were not up to the standard that Texas Volleyball holds today, and the team failed to win a share of the Big 12 Championship each of those years. However, Texas flipped a switch during the 2007 season and slowly the program rose its former glory under Haley’s guidance.
In 2007, Texas captured a share of the Big 12 Championship as they tied for first place in the conference with Nebraska. The team finished with an overall record of 27-4 with a 19-1 record in the Big 12. As the overall fourth seed, the Longhorns were eliminated in the Regional Finals of the NCAA tournament, meaning they were one of the final eight teams remaining. It was a huge season for Texas Volleyball, because the team proved it had a bright future under the leadership of younger players such as Big 12 Freshman of the Year Juliann Faucette. It was clear the Elliot had the Horns moving in the right direction.
In 2008, Texas built upon the success of the previous season by capturing another share of the Big 12 Championship and making its first Final Four appearance under Elliott. The Longhorns finished the season with a record of 29-4 and a 18-2 conference record. Destinee Hooker, Ashley Engle and Lauren Paolini were named First Team All-Americans. In the National Semifinal, Texas won its first two sets against Stanford, but dropped the final three sets and was eliminated.
In 2009, the program was optimistic because Hooker and Engle returned to lead a remarkably athletic team. “In ’09, that was one unbelievable set of athletes,” Elliott reflects. “It’s not only how good your team is, it’s also based on the rest of the country.”
The entire season went just as Texas planned up until the final game. The Horns finished the regular season with a record of 29-2 and held a record of 19-1 in the Big 12 Conference. They were ranked second in the country for the majority of the season behind two-time defending champion Pennsylvania State University.
Texas met Penn State in the National Championship Game in a matchup of heavy weights. The Longhorns came out and shocked their critics when they won the first two sets and were one set away from winning the championship. “We were playing pretty perfect,” Engle says. “I think we shocked Penn State a little bit.”
However, Penn State went on to complete a historic comeback by winning the last three sets and sending Texas home empty handed. “There was nothing that I wanted more than for them to win the championship,” Elliott said. “The ball bounces a funny way sometimes.”
It would be another two years before Texas returned to the title game, but that doesn’t mean that their historic run came to an end. It was just beginning. The next year Texas returned to the Final Four, where they again were sent packing by Penn State in the National Semifinals.
Two years later, they were back in the Final Four for the fourth time in five years. This was an incredible accomplishment considering the majority of NCAA programs have never been to the Final Four. “To me, getting to the Final Four is one of the hardest thing to do in sports,” Elliott said, “And to get here four out of the last five years says a lot about where are program is.”
Indeed, Elliott had succeeded in getting Texas back to where it was when Haley served as coach. But there was only one thing missing: a national championship.
Texas returned to the National Championship in 2012, this time against Oregon. The Horns had run through the Big 12, finishing with a regular season record of 29-4 and a conference record of 15-1. Texas swept the match and won in three sets to capture its first NCAA Championship since 1988. As the bench players sprinted onto the court and dove on top of the starters to form a dog pile, spectators could see the joy and excitement on their faces. “I feel like we haven’t won in so long, so it means basically the world right now,” senior Sha’Dare McNeal said after the game. “To me, it means everything.”
The championship win established Elliott as one of the greatest coaches in the history of the program elevated his legacy closer to Haley’s. “I’ve been in ting a lot of times and finally we broke through,” Elliott said. “This has been a long time coming.”
The magical run that won the 2012 NCAA Championship is still going strong. This season, Texas is currently ranked No. 5 in the country — the team’s lowest ranking of the year so far — and were ranked No. 2 for the majority of the season. The recent drop in ranking came from their first loss of the season to Oklahoma on Oct. 25. Texas still holds a record of 15-1 and is in first place in the Big 12. Texas has a chance to return to to the Final Four and compete for another national championship.
The Texas volleyball team has continued its reign of dominance that began in 2007. It’s possible they could bring home another championship this season. So, enough with the talk that Texas lacks a dominant team this semester It’s time for the UT community to acknowledge the success of this program and show it more support.
Students and alumni should to come out to Gregory and support this season’s biggest powerhouse on campus. Who knows – maybe the extra support could be what the Horns need to push themselves over the top and bring home the second National Championship of the Jerritt Elliott era.