LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Late Saturday night Texas coach Jerritt Elliott probably wasn’t thinking about just how remarkable it was that Penn State won four national championships in a row. Or that last year UCLA broke not only that string but also its own 20-year drought.
All he knew was that Texas, the gigantic volleyball power from a volleyball-rich state and a university with lofty expectations in everything it does every day, finally walked away with the 2012 NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship trophy, giving his program its first title since 1988.
“It takes time and it takes the right situation to be able to happen,” said Elliott, the 12th-year Texas coach whose third-seeded Longhorns (29-4) swept fifth-seeded Oregon (30-5), 25-11, 26-24, 25-19. “I’m so proud of our program. To me, getting to the final four is one of the hardest things to do in sports, and to get there four out of five [years] says a lot about where our program is.”
They weren’t exactly the Chicago Cubs, waiting since 1908 to win another World Series, but in volleyball terms, considering the national-semifinals loss in 2008, the 15-13 ending in the fifth set to Penn State in 2009 and another semifinal defeat in 2010, finally celebrating at season’s end after 24 years—before any of these championship team members were born—was pretty special for these Longhorns.
“This is the only thing that money can’t buy,” Elliott said. “It’s one of the things where you’ve got to work, you’ve got to communicate, you’ve got to learn how to build and believe in each other, you’ve got to deal with conflict. There are a lot of things that you go through that the media and people don’t know.”
What we did know was that when the last point crashed to the floor, a tremendous block by Texas senior Sha’ Dare McNeal on Oregon’s Liz Brenner, sophomore Khat Bell raced not into the dogpile but went flying onto the back of her coach.
“She’s been telling me all year, ‘Coach, I’m coming for you.’ We actually talked about it when we were up late in game three, she looked at me and said, ‘I’m coming after you, Coach.’ She made me a promise that we were going to win. We’ve got a special relationship and she’s an unbelievable young lady who has grown so much, not only on the court but off the court, too.
“I just love having players like that where you can make a difference in their life.”
Bell, the 6’1” hitter from Mesquite, Texas, had four kills, hit .273, and had a solo block to go with five block assists on a night when Texas owned the net. Texas lived up to its ranking as the best hitting team in the country: Big 12 Player of the Year Haley Eckerman, the 6’3” jumping jack from Waterloo, Iowa, had 12 kills in 25 attempts, with just two errors, hitting .400. Bailey Webster, the 6’3” junior from Baltimore, Md., continued her remarkable postseason run with 14 kills in 26 swings with only one error for a .500 percentage. She hit .458 in the postseason. McNeal added eight kills, hit .471, and finished the postseason at .500.
Texas had 26 block assists and solos by Bell and setter Hannah Allison. Oregon, meanwhile, had just two block assists total as the Longhorns completely neutralized the AVCA Player of the Year, Oregon’s Alaina Bergsma. Bergsma had nine kills, but nine errors and hit .000. Her team hit .202.
Texas also sided out at a remarkable percentage, 91 percent in the first set, 75 percent in the second and 85 percent in the third. “We haven’t done that all year long,” Elliott said.
Another telling stat: Oregon had just one service ace and seven errors, which tore at coach Jim Moore.
“We knew if we were going to be successful tonight we knew were going to have to serve tough,” said eighth-year Oregon coach Jim Moore, who took the Ducks farther than they’d ever gone. “Kudos to Texas passing but we didn’t apply any pressure serving. It just wasn’t there. There are times it just doesn’t come.”
Sophomore Liz Brenner and senior Katherine Fischer led the Ducks with 13 kills apiece, but that couldn’t make up for the difficult time Bergsma was having.
“Obviously it didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but in the end we proved a lot of people wrong,” said Bergsma, who led the way as Oregon knocked off BYU, Nebraska, and Penn State to get to the final. “Hopefully we set the bar really high and the team can just continue to build on our success.”
For Moore, the situation had to be bittersweet. He has had a tremendous coaching career, much of which he’s shared with his assistant coach and wife. He won a national Division II title at Northern Michigan and then did a great job at Kansas State before getting the job at Texas. In four years there, from 1997-2000, he went 84-38. Elliott was his replacement.
Moore rebuilt the program at Chico State, went back to Northern Michigan for two years and then got the Oregon job in 2005. He was asked about what winning must mean at Texas, but the answer went in a different direction.
“It means a lot to me. I don’t know what it means to Texas. I’m not there,” he said.
“But when Katherine Fischer was a freshman we were talking about different things and I was asking everybody on the team what do you want out of life. Heather Meyers, who was pretty much a jokester, said she wanted a house on the beach. And people were saying things like that and Katherine as a freshman said ‘I want to be a national champion.’
“It’s really hard. I don’t know what it means to Texas. I know it hurts for us to lose it.”
This is Oregon’s first close call. Texas was so close so many times. Perspective? For all the great players Texas has had, for all those great teams, when the U.S. women won the silver last summer in London, former Longhorn Destinee Hooker—the star of those 2008 and 2009 Texas teams—became the first Longhorn to ever win an Olympic volleyball medal.
As it turned out, this was Texas’ year.
“I talked to so many great coaches and I asked what was the key and they said just keep getting back to the final four and give yourself a chance,” said Elliott, the AVCA National Coach of the Year. “That team that we had in ’09 and didn’t win, that was an unbelievable set of athletes. It’s not how good your team is but it’s also based on the rest of the country.”
In 2008 Stanford was better. In 2009 Penn State was better. In 2010 Penn State was better again. Even last year, in the regional final, UCLA was better.
“I think this means a lot to him,” Webster said of her coach. “I’ve been here four years and he’s believed in us every single time and he never gave up on us.”
Here’s something else: McNeal is the only senior. You can bet somewhere back in Austin someone is already thinking about next year.
“The great thing about Texas is there’s always so much pride in it and it’s going to continue to grow the sport,” Elliott said. “I’m sure us winning tonight will get a lot of young ladies out there that are 10 to 12 years old who will start bumping the ball back and forth and hopefully we’ll have some future Longhorns.”
And when they get there, they will already know just how hard it is to win it all.