LOUISVILLE, Ky. – For most of the post-victory news conference Thursday night, the Texas players and their coach, Jerritt Elliott, gave the company line.
Until Elliott was asked what it meant to him personally and to the program to be back in the title match of the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship.
“You know, I spoke about it today at the coaches banquet about what it means to coach and when you’re a coach at Texas, there’s a lot of pressure,” Elliott admitted.
“And there are a lot things where the eyes are on you and they want you to be at this level and continue and we’ve done such a good job as a program and a staff to get back here.”
The third-seeded Longhorns got back with a 25-11, 21-25, 23-25, 25-12, 15-11, extremely hard fought victory over upstart Michigan, the underdog who turned that lopsided loss in the first set into a 2-1 advantage.
It took everything Texas (28-4) had to win and get back to the championship match for the first time since 2009, when the ‘Horns lost to Penn State 25-22, 25-20, 23-25, 21-25, 15-13.
And don’t think the memory of that defeat has faded any more than the loss in 2010 in the semifinals, again to Penn State but in three.
“That was a huge obstacle that we had to overcome,” Texas junior setter Hannah Allison said. “Not just the way that we played that year, but it mentally beat us up and it was hard to regroup from that because of the way that match went down.”
Texas didn’t get that far last year, losing in four to eventual champion UCLA in the regional final.
So, naturally, Elliott is happy to be back in the biggest match of the year.
“This is not about me, it’s about my players. It’s about the people who put time into it. Would it be something special to me?” Elliott asked. “Absolutely.”
He said that he’s overwhelmed with the support his team is getting from everyone back home in Austin to the social media world and a barrage of text messages.
“In 2009 I thought we had a chance. We had a swing to tie it in game three, we had a touch call that did not get called in game five, so what I’ve learned is I can’t control a whole lot. I can do the best I can and put my team out there and put them in situations where I think they can be successful but if we’re going to win, the players are going to have to do it.”
Actually, some key coaching strategies helped the Longhorns quite a bit against an unseeded Michigan team that had, in order, upset Tennessee and Louisville inside this same KFC Yum! Center, and then last weekend the Wolverines swept past Big Ten rival Michigan State before stunning Stanford.
But Elliott and his staff made some lineup rotation adjustments, changed where the players were serving, and, in his words, “We did a good job of managing our game, the defense stepped up and did a good job of eliminating their middles in games one, four and five.
The key for Texas ultimately was a balanced attack. Whereas Michigan’s workhorse, Lexi Erwin had a whopping 87 swings that resulted in a match-high 26 kills but also 14 errors, Texas had four players with 11 kills or more: Bailey Webster led with 18, including an absolute bomb that gave Texas an 11-8 lead in the last set. Big 12 Player of the Year Haley Eckerman added 16, Sha’Dare McNeal had 13 kills in 21 attempts with just two errors for a .524 attack percentage, and Khat Bell had 11 kills and hit .420.
“I think it makes it hard for a team to stop just one player because we have a lot of weapons,” said Allison, who had 53 assists. “It helps them balance out so that not one player on our team has to carry all the weight. Not one person has to get all the kills. That’s the most important thing.
“For me, I can get creative with who I set and what play calls I make because I have so many players who can put the ball away. That allows me to spread things out and make us a little more unpredictable.”
And with Michigan fighting for survival and down 12-10, twice in a long rally Texas libero Sarah Palmer made fantastic digs on Erwin in a point that ended with another Webster kill.
“People have been questioning Sarah Palmer all year long and I’ll you what,” Elliott said, “I feel like I’ve got the best libero in the country right now.” Palmer finished with a match-high 31 digs.
She helped lighten the load on a coach who is obviously feeling the pressure for the showcase program in a volleyball-rich state to win its first national championship since 1988.
“I’ve been joking with the media back home that the monkey has grown into a gorilla on my back,” he said with a smile. “I don’t really feel pressure like we’re doing anything wrong as a staff. I think we have the best staff in the country. I think we know what we’re doing.
“Some years the pressure you put on yourself is based on overachieving. You know, we got here a couple of times when we shouldn’t have probably gotten here. But those are the expectations but I’m happy to be the one to represent this program and this university and I know everybody back home is excited and we’re going to give it our best shot and get confident and get our kids rested and focused.”