Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Texas well-prepared for volleyball semis
By Dave Reed Special to ESPN.com
The Texas women's volleyball team has aced nearly every test it faced during the 2009 season.
The Longhorns began the year with five consecutive victories against nationally ranked opponents, including No. 4 Hawaii and No. 10 California, during the first two weeks.
Ashley Engle is one of Texas' three senior leaders.
UT went on to claim its first outright Big 12 championship since 1997 with a 19-1 record, winning 57 out of a possible 64 sets during its conference schedule, which included 10 matches against NCAA tournament teams.
And this past weekend, Texas defeated archrival Texas A&M and perennial Big 12 champion Nebraska in Omaha to earn its sixth overall appearance (and second consecutive) in the national semifinals of the NCAA tournament.
The tests are over. Now it's time to take their finals.
The Longhorns, seeded second of 16 seeded teams in the tournament, face No. 11 seed Minnesota in Thursday's first semifinal at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla., at 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN360.com).
The winner will face either No. 1 seed Penn State or No. 12 seed Hawaii -- who face off in Thursday's second semifinal at 9 p.m. ET -- in the national championship match on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET. The semifinals and final will air live on ESPN2 and ESPN360.com.
Texas is led by its three seniors -- setter Ashley Engle, outside hitter Destinee Hooker and libero Heather Kisner -- the winningest class in the history of UT volleyball with a combined 108-16 record and .871 winning percentage. The only thing missing from their list of accomplishments is a national title.
"I'm glad we're playing first because I'd be bouncing off the walls if I wasn't playing," Hooker said of going to the semifinals. "I just want to get that match on the road because I'm the kind of person, my adrenaline starts rolling the day of the match."
The Longhorns also feature junior outside hitter Juliann Faucette, junior middle blocker Jennifer Doris and sophomore middle blocker Rachael Adams, making their attack as diversified as any team in the country.
"We've got a lot of different weapons that can hurt you on different nights," said coach Jerritt Elliott, now in his ninth season at Texas. "The biggest thing is that they're together and they're committed to it. They enjoy playing together and they're all excited we have another week together."
Texas has done everything possible to prepare for the opportunity to win the program's second NCAA title (its only one was won in 1988), beginning with its challenging nonconference schedule.
Jerritt Eliiott and his Longhorns hope to win Texas its second NCAA volleyball title.
"We wanted to put them in as many adverse situations as possible," said Elliott, one of only five coaches to lead two different programs to the national semifinals. He also led USC as interim head coach in 2000. "We were able to play in some big arenas in front of loud crowds. We knew there was a chance we would go to Nebraska or Minnesota and that's the reason we scheduled the way we did. We also knew we would be on the road for a long time, and here we are now on the road again almost two weeks straight."
Volleyball fans are fixated on what they believe is the inevitable showdown between the Nittany Lions and Longhorns, the teams that have held the top two positions in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Coaches Poll throughout the 2009 season. However, the eyes of Texas are focused squarely on Minnesota, which also has been at the top of its game during the postseason.
One of the secrets to UT's success has been its unwavering concentration on the next match. The slightest mention of an upcoming opponent means instant punishment for the offending player or coach who breaks the team's rule of not looking past the task at hand.
"We have a rule on our team that if anyone talks about an opponent other than the one in front of us, you have to drop down wherever you are at and do 10 push-ups," Engle said. "We don't talk about them [Penn State] at all. For us, it's all Minnesota, all the time."
Texas dropped only one match during the regular season, a five-set decision at then-No. 8 Iowa State. That loss eliminated the pressure of trying to remain undefeated and reminded the Longhorns that any opponent is a threat when they're not at the top of their game.
"The stress kind of went down after the loss to Iowa State because we felt like we had to be perfect," Hooker said. "After that, the target was off our backs and we could finally play our game.
"We're not perfect. We learned not to take any team for granted."
Senior Destinee Hooker leads the Horns with 475 kills.
Since falling to the Cyclones, UT has won 10 consecutive matches and 30 of 32 sets.
The Golden Gophers earned their spot in the national semifinals by defeating Louisville and host Tennessee in the first and second rounds, respectively, and then Colorado State and No. 3-seed Florida State in the Minneapolis Regional.
"The biggest mistake we could make as a staff would be not being prepared for Minnesota and presenting that to the team," Elliott said. "Minnesota is a very good team. If we don't play our A-game, they're capable of beating us. We're going to have to be ready for a very good team from a great conference that is used to playing at a very high level."
Texas stampeded through the first and second rounds by sweeping Texas State and TCU, respectively, before winning the Omaha Regional.
The Longhorns' come-from-behind victory over the Cornhuskers was even more impressive because Texas became the first team ever to beat Nebraska three times during the same season since the NCAA began sponsoring volleyball in 1981.
"It was a great challenge," Engle said. "It's hard to beat a team three times in a row, especially teams of that caliber, and with Nebraska basically playing a home match with 10,000 fans versus our 14 parents. As an athlete, it was a great environment to be in. It's always great to come out on top when everyone else wants you to lose."
Its doubtful Texas will face that level of hostility in Tampa since none of the remaining teams will play in front of its home crowd, but the Longhorns will be prepared for anything.
"The NCAA committee decided to put us in the toughest bracket in front of the toughest crowd," Elliott said. "I'm really proud of our team for how they responded and how they approached the matches. Our team is prepared for that kind of environment when we get to Tampa."
Dave Reed is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.