• Thu. Jul 25th, 2024

Texas sweeps Nebraska for 2nd straight NCAA volleyball title


Dec 30, 2023 #Sports


TAMPA, Fla. — In 2009, here in this same arena, Texas women’s volleyball lost one of its most heartbreaking matches: falling in the national championship after taking a 2-0 lead, which longtime coach Jerritt Elliott still calls his most painful defeat.

On Sunday, in the first NCAA volleyball championship match to be televised on ABC, the Longhorns and Elliott replaced that bad memory with a much happier one. Texas repeated as national champion and did something no team had previously done in NCAA women’s volleyball history: win back-to-back titles via sweeps.

The No. 2 seed Longhorns did it by knocking off three No. 1 seeds in a row: Stanford in the regional final, Wisconsin in the national semifinals and Nebraska in the final. The Longhorns won 25-22, 25-14, 25-11 on Sunday; last year they swept Louisville in the title match.

Last season, Texas essentially carried the mantle as country’s best team all the way through the championship match. This year, with freshman setter Ella Swindle learning the ropes, Texas had a few more bumps in the road early on, including a loss at Long Beach State in the season opener on Aug. 25.

“We were really on the struggle bus at 5-3,” Elliott said of Texas’ record on Sept. 15 after a home loss to Washington State. “We just asked our kids to stay with the process, trust one another, work hard. We’ve worked through a lot of ups and downs, a lot of tears, things we were trying to figure out. And magically, it just came together.”

Nebraska coach John Cook noted that the Longhorns were one point from losing the regional semifinal to Tennessee but rallied to win that match and then beat the three No. 1 seeds.

“You think, ‘It’s destiny, it’s ours,'” Cook said of how scrambling out of near defeat can motivate a team. “And I think Texas experienced that. Sometimes you go through those matches that give you that whatever ‘extra’ thing is. Like, ‘Hey, doesn’t matter what happened, we’re not losing.'”

By Sunday, there was no doubt who the best team was: the Longhorns again. Other than at setter, Texas did have some key experienced players, including fifth-year senior Asjia O’Neal, who got her fifth service ace of the afternoon on match point to launch Texas’ celebration.

Madisen Skinner, who helped lead Kentucky to the SEC’s first volleyball title in the COVID-delayed 2020 championship, got her third overall NCAA title, as she won the past two after transferring to Texas. She was named most outstanding player of the championship after 18 kills in the semifinal win over Pittsburgh and 16 against Nebraska in the final. Skinner, O’Neal and Swindle were each on the all-tournament team.

The record crowd of 19,727 at Amalie Arena watched Texas take over in the second set with spectacular serving as the Longhorns never gave the Huskers a chance to rally. O’Neal served 10 consecutive points in an 11-0 second-set run that was the turning point after a tight first set in which the Longhorns didn’t get rattled despite some disputes with the officials.

O’Neal, the daughter of longtime NBA player Jermaine O’Neal, has been through two open-heart surgeries. She said she doesn’t think a lot about her medical history, other than when she needs extra motivation for a workout and remembers how much she has been through to be the player she is.

During the service run that took over the match, O’Neal couldn’t help but smile.

“Volleyball is a huge game of momentum,” she said. “During that run, I could totally feel the momentum shift to our side. We were playing with so much confidence and joy. I was smiling because I was so happy with how we were feeling. You just feel it. I felt we were going to win the match.”

Texas, which had 11 service aces in the semifinal against Wisconsin, had 12 against Nebraska. It was big part of why Cook said the Huskers never got into a rhythm. Nebraska hit just .013 for the match, with almost as many errors (19) as kills (20).

That said, the Huskers, who were playing in the program’s 11th championship match, have no seniors. Four freshmen played key roles in Nebraska’s 33-2 season, and the five-time national champions will be a force to be reckoned with again next season.

The Longhorns won their fourth NCAA title and fifth national championship overall, counting one in the AIAW era. Their other NCAA titles were in 2012 under Elliott and 1988 under Mick Haley, who also coached the 1981 AIAW champions. This is Texas’ last year in the Big 12; next season the Longhorns move to the SEC.

Amalie Arena went by a different name in 2009, but it is the same building that hosted the volleyball championship that year. Texas took a 2-0 lead over defending champion Penn State, which was then in the midst of one of the best runs in volleyball history.

But Texas couldn’t close out the title and lost in a reverse sweep, with the fifth-set score 16-14 for the Nittany Lions. It was the senior year of one of Texas’ all-time greatest stars, Destinee Hooker, who had 34 kills in the final and was the championship’s most outstanding player despite the loss. Penn State finished a second straight season at 38-0, and Elliott sat with that loss until he won his first title with the Longhorns in 2012.

On Sunday, Texas never got close to losing its lead, making Tampa a place Elliott and Longhorns fans will always think of fondly now.

“It was probably one of the most epic volleyball matches of all time,” Elliott said of the 2009 final, which featured multiple future Olympians, including Hooker. “There was a lot of sting with that. But I’m just happy for everybody that’s part of this Longhorn family.”


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