This is the second in a series of college conference previews since the NCAA season begins on Friday, August 26. Today, the Big 12. Still to come, the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC.

By Greg Echlin for

So how do the Texas Longhorns replace three the seniors—Amy Neal, Molly McCage and Kat Brooks—who were the first to be part of four straight trips to the national semifinals and compiled the best winning percentage of any class in program history?

Simply put, it’s part of the “culture” coach Jerritt Elliott likes to talk about.

So it’s no surprise the Horns are ranked No. 2 in the AVCA preseason poll this year and picked to win their sixth straight Big 12 title.

The last team to win the conference title is Nebraska, which isn’t even in the Big 12 anymore and the same school that beat Texas in the NCAA national-championship match last December.

So much for nostalgia. Though each team targets Columbus, Ohio, for the national semifinals this year, they played each other in the non-conference season last season and will again at the VERT Challenge next weekend in Portland.

After that, the grind of the Big 12.

“It’s going to be a strong conference,” said Elliott. “I think we have some really good teams and I think this year it’s going to be even at another level.”

That includes the surprise team of late last season, Kansas, which enters the season ranked No. 5. The truth is, the Big 12 has to prove on a national scope, that any of the other teams deserve much attention. TCU beat Texas last season and joined Iowa State and Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament. Of those three, only Iowa State won its first-round match.

First, the answer to the Texas health questions:

1. Former national freshman of the year (at USC before transferring) Ebony Nwanebu is back after being granted a medical redshirt because of back problems. The 6-foot-4 outside hitter made only one appearance—an impactful one with 22 kills against Nebraska in the fourth game of the season—and will return as a junior.

2. Micaya White, tabbed the Big 12 pre-season freshman of the year a year ago before a stress fracture in her leg wiped out her season, is ready for her first taste of collegiate competition, also as an outside hitter.

But the preseason ranking didn’t take into account the blow Texas received when it was announced before their first public scrimmage this past Saturday that senior middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu, the team’s only returning first-team All-American, will be academically ineligible to play this season.

Ogbogu said in a written release through the athletics department: “I’m extremely disappointed and take full responsibility for the situation I put myself and my team in. I plan to use this time to take care of my business academically, continue to get better as a player and come back next January and compete next year with the Longhorns again.”

Curiously, before the news broke, Elliott didn’t mention Ogbogu when asked directly if the two returning captains from last year, Ogbogu and Nicole Dalton, would be captains again this fall.

As a result, there will be some shuffling on the front line.

Paulina Preito Cerame of Texas/UT athletics
Paulina Preito Cerame of Texas/UT athletics

Yaazie Bedart-Ghani, who had the best match of her freshman season in the national semifinal against Minnesota, will be competing with Nwanebu and White on the outside along with senior Paulina Prieto Cerame, an all-tournament player in the Austin regional last season and a second-team All American. Cerame was with the Puerto Rican national team the past few months and was cut just before the Olympics.

Setter Chloe Collins makes the Texas offense go/UT athletics
Setter Chloe Collins makes the Texas offense go/UT athletics

Chloe Collins, the diminutive but explosive setter, was a third-team All-American last year.

Elliott said he looks at Bedart-Ghani and Prieto Cerame as utility players because of their ability to play on either side of the net.

“We’re pretty deep at a lot of positions and obviously have a lot of firepower,” said Elliott, whose 15-year resume at Texas includes winning the 2012 NCAA title.

Kansas, in the meantime, is no longer a secret, not after shocking the college-volleyball world with its trip last year to Omaha and the NCAA Championships.

Ray Bechard enters his 19th season with a solid core of players back from the team that reached unprecedented levels in program history last year.

KU’s newly established reputation as a team to be reckoned with became apparent during an offseason trip to Indianapolis in the midst of what Bechard called a “recruiting coma.” Members of the Southeastern Louisiana coaching staff, aware of the bracket in Purdue’s Stacy Clark Classic (Sept. 16-17) where they’ll play with the Jayhawks, Boilermakers and Xavier U., approached Bechard.

“They introduced themselves, ‘Hey, we’re from Southeastern Louisiana. Our team can’t wait to play you guys.’ ” Bechard said. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s interesting.’ ”

Such is the life of a team with a target on its back.

KU finished 30-3 last year, losing twice to Texas in the regular season and to Nebraska in the national semifinals. The Jayhawks went five only twice, once in their home loss to Texas and the other in its upset of top-seeded USC in the San Diego regional final.

Of course, KU and Texas will play twice in the Big 12 again this season. Texas has won the last 24 matches.

What makes it interesting is that five players from Texas are on the Kansas roster.

Kelsie Payne hits against USC in the 2015 NCAA Tournament/Ed Chan,
Kelsie Payne hits against USC in the 2015 NCAA Tournament/Ed Chan,

That includes Austin native Kelsie Payne, a junior who burst onto the national scene in 2015.

“I feel like it’s been a thing in the Big 12 for a long time that we’ve been chasing them every year,” the 6-foot-3 Payne said. “They’re always like the big sister to us. I think now we’ve got the team and we can give them a run for their money. I think we were so close last year.”

Elliott knows, of course, he could have had Payne.

“At the end of the day, I had made a miss and it’s not the first one I’ve made a miss on,” Elliott admitted.

Payne is the preseason pick as the Big 12 player of the year as she is in the midst of transition to becoming a six-rotation player. It’s designed to offset the loss of departed senior Tiana Dockery.

Last year, Bechard shifted Payne to shift from the middle to the right side. To finish the year as a first-team All-American and to be invited to the USA camp for the Pan American Cup over the summer would seem the idea worked.

“I think, for what our team needed, that was the best move and it obviously paid pretty good dividends to her individually,” Bechard said.

It wasn’t an easy adjustment at first.

“Definitely one of the more difficult things I’ve done because it’s a whole different side of the net,” said Payne.  “The ball crosses my body now and it’s not right in front of me.”

Iowa State, picked to finish third in the Big 12, got some votes in the AVCA national poll.

Two Cyclones who were all-Big 12 last year, outside hitter/middle blocker Alexis Conaway and outside hitter Morgan Kuhrt, return.

“We will look to them for a lot of leadership this year,” ISU coach Christy Johnson-Lynch said.

She added that the ISU coaching is being extra cautious with outside hitter Jess Schaben, the 2015 Big 12 freshman of the year, because of shoulder problems during the spring. Schaben has been on a hit count in the opening weeks of practice and may spend more time than expected on the bench during the non-conference season to allow her shoulder to gain strength.

The Cyclones beat Miami in the first round, but lost in the second round to Wisconsin.

“We’ve been stuck on first and second round now for a few years and we want to make a deeper run,” said Johnson-Lynch, in her 12th season as the Cyclones head coach and first year as president of the AVCA. “Having players on a mission and committed to that, I think (it) will help take care of itself or at least keep us going in the right direction.”

TCU,which had a tough draw in Hawaii in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, is picked to finish fourth followed by Oklahoma and Kansas State respectively. TCU had 19 wins last season, the most for the school in five years.

Of the top six pre-season picks this year, only the Sooners missed the NCAA Tournament last year. They were picked to finish third in the 2015 preseason coaches poll, but finished sixth after struggling to a 12-16 mark, 6-10 in the league.

“Oklahoma, I think, will bounce back from the disappointing year they had,” Bechard said. “I think they could be a top-20 team.”

Baylor, Texas Tech and West Virginia rounded out the 2016 pre-season coaches poll.



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