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Saturday, December 15, 2012
Title puts Texas back in the saddle again

By Mechelle Voepel

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Let's face it: When you're Texas, you never get to be the cuddly underdog. You're the big, bad Longhorns, representing the giant school with the well-funded athletics department in the giant state loaded with talented recruits in all sports.

And Texas was as important a catalyst in the development of women's athletics -- especially with the move to the NCAA in 1981-82 -- as any school in the country.

Texas Longhorns
The Texas Longhorns celebrate their national championship after Saturday night's sweep of Oregon.

Yet even so, it's been a very long time -- the 1980s -- since the Longhorns celebrated a national championship in one of the prominent women's team sports. Which is why there was not just celebration, but also a sense of joyous relief, from those in burnt orange here Saturday night.

It was time to light up the Texas tower back in the Lone Star State's capital city. Texas women's volleyball had won the NCAA title. In front of 16,428 fans at the KFC Yum! Center -- the second-largest crowd to see a women's volleyball NCAA championship match -- the Longhorns put on a clinic.

"I can't wait to celebrate tonight, because this is what it's all about," Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said after the Longhorns' 3-0 victory against Oregon. "This is the only thing that money can't buy."

OK, maybe it's not actually the only thing, but his point is well taken. Texas provides its student-athletes with top facilities, staff, equipment, travel, health care and training methods. But winning a national championship still comes down to the very tricky business of not only getting great athletes, but helping them perform their best at the right time.

Near perfect

The Longhorns did that Saturday; in fact, it would have been difficult for them to play any better in a 25-11, 26-24, 25-19 victory. They hit .438 as a team, led by 14 kills from Bailey Webster, the tournament's most outstanding player. Big 12 player of the year Haley Eckerman had 12 kills. Texas setter Hannah Allison controlled the offense like a veteran orchestra conductor.

Bailey Webster
Texas hitter Bailey Webster spikes the ball around the block of Oregon's Canace Finley during Saturday's match.

The Longhorns had just four hitting errors to the Ducks' 23. Texas had 28 blocks to just two for Oregon. And Texas neutralized Oregon senior Alaina Bergsma -- who Friday was named Division I player of the year -- as she had nine kills but also nine errors.

The closest thing to drama in this match was when Texas trailed 21-18 in the second set, but the Longhorns climbed back and won that set, essentially shutting the door on the Ducks right there.

"During the match, I was really calm," Webster said. "Your anxiety can mess you up because it's the national championship match. I can't remember anything (of the match) because just at this point, it's surreal."

Suffice it to say, it will be a great pleasure for Elliott and the Longhorns to relive it all while watching this game film, which stands in contrast to the past three times Texas was in the NCAA final four.

In 2008, Texas went up 2-0 on Stanford in the national semifinals ... but lost the match. Then, in 2009, the Longhorns took a 2-0 lead against Penn State in the national championship ... but lost that one, too.

"In '09, that was an unbelievable set of athletes," Elliott said of the group of Longhorns led by 2012 Olympian Destinee Hooker. "[But] it's not only how good your team is, it's also based on the rest of the country."

Indeed, because in 2009, Penn State was in the midst of winning four titles in a row. In 2010, Texas didn't have the agony of losing a big lead in the NCAA semifinals, but instead had to deal with getting blown out in three sets by the Nittany Lions.

Then last year, Texas lost 3-1 in a regional final to UCLA, the third consecutive year the Longhorns' season was ended by the team that won the NCAA title.

The Longhorns kept on knocking, but they couldn't get in.

"I've talked to so many great coaches, and I said, 'What's the key?' " Elliott said. "They said, 'Keep getting back (to the final four) and give yourself a chance.' "

Long time coming

This was Texas' fourth trip to the final four in five years. And Elliott -- in his 12th season with the Longhorns -- acknowledged earlier this week that it felt like there was a weight on him because Texas had not won an NCAA title in volleyball since 1988, when Mick Haley was the Longhorns' coach.

That title came two years after the Texas women's basketball team had a perfect season in winning the national championship. In the 1980s, Texas was setting the bar higher than any university for its women's athletics department, thanks in large part to visionary athletic department leaders. Chris Plonsky, Texas' women's athletics director, first worked for the school from 1982-86, then, after a stay in the Big East, returned to Austin in 1993.

During the break between sets here Saturday, some of the influential women in volleyball from this geographic region were honored on court as part of a Title IX 40th anniversary celebration. Plonsky watched that with emotion.

"That's women's sports history there, and we definitely really feel that," Plonsky said. "And for us to win this title the same year as the anniversary of Title IX ... the timing of that is just really special for us."

After Saturday's match, the elated Texas players hugged Plonsky, the Texas cheerleaders, Bevo the mascot, the band members, and anybody else they saw wearing burnt orange.

The Longhorns knew they had the stuff to win an NCAA title this season, but they still had to get through some rough patches, including a stretch in which they lost three of four matches in early September.

They came back and won the Big 12 title handily, losing just one match -- a five-setter at Iowa State in the regular-season finale. During the NCAA tournament, Texas had four sweeps and was really pushed in only one match: the 3-2 national semifinal victory over Michigan here Thursday, when the Longhorns rallied from down 2-1.

Since Nebraska left the Big 12 for the Big Ten following the 2010 season, Texas went indisputably to the top of the totem pole in that conference. Now Texas gives the Big 12 its third volleyball national championship; the others were by Nebraska in 2000 and 2006.

Texas' first title was when the school was still in the Southwest Conference. None of the current players were even alive in 1988, but they know the history. And they're proud of what they've just added to it.

"I feel like we haven't won in so long, so it means basically the world right now," said Sha'Dare McNeal, Texas' only senior and a member of the all-tournament team. "To me, it means everything."