To get to the end, go back to the beginning.
“Our team is the deepest I’ve ever had as a coach, it’s the most talent I’ve ever had,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said last August, three weeks before the NCAA season began.
He added, “We know we have the talent. We’ve got four months to mesh them because they’ve never played together. They don’t know how to play together yet. They don’t know what their buttons are when the pressure is on. They’re going to have to learn all that stuff. That’s going to be the key for us.”
Texas completed a nearly perfect season Saturday night with its sweep of Louisville in the NCAA championship match. The only stumble in a 28-1 year was on October 23 at Iowa State, a match in which the Longhorns dropped two sets by 27-25 scores and lost despite hitting .359 and getting 13 blocks.
But that 18-25, 27-25, 12-25, 27-25, 15-10 defeat wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, superstar Logan Eggleston offered Saturday night. She was asked if maybe it actually helped the Longhorns.
“100 percent. I don’t think it’s ever good to go undefeated in a season because you don’t know how to battle through adversity,” Eggleston said. “I think we learned a lot about ourselves as players and as a team and through that game and what we could do better.”
The last time a team went unbeaten in NCAA Division I volleyball was in 2009 when Penn State went 38-0 in both 2008 and 2009. Texas is the third one-loss team to win since.
“I think if we hadn’t have lost that game, I don’t know that some of the conversations we had and some of the areas that we improved on would have happened,” Eggleston said.
“So I’m honestly really grateful that we hit that kind of roadblock in the middle of the season because it made us so much better throughout the end.”
The bigs, of course, got theirs for Texas in the 25-22, 25-14, 26-24 victory over Louisville, which, it can’t be overstated, was a fantastic college volleyball team. Eggleston had 19 kills, Madisen Skinner — who won the NCAA title for Kentucky when it beat Texas in the spring 2021 final –12, Asjia O’Neal nine and Molly Phillips six. Between them just eight errors in 98 attacks.
But the littles?
They were fantastic. Zoe Fleck transferred from UCLA for just this and on the biggest stage the 5-foot-6 libero with the wild hair and no regard for her body had 14 digs, five assists and two aces. Freshman Emma Halter played like anything but as the 5-5 DS had five digs and 11 serve-receive attempts with no errors.
“Emma, she doesn’t know,” Elliott said. “She’s a freshman. She’s just nails.”
And when it came down to the last play, so was Keonilei Akana, who rocketed a walk-off ace.
The 5-9 Akana just a year earlier played for Nebraska for the national championship when the Huskers lost in five to Wisconsin and she had an ace and 24 digs. In 2021 she led Nebraska with 42 aces, a whopping seven when the Huskers ousted Texas from the NCAA Tournament.
She finished this season with 34 aces, second only to Eggleston, and, of course, none bigger than that last one.
Elliott claimed he called it.
“I said she has ice in her veins and she’s going to get an ace. That’s specifically what I said. I may have thrown some other word in there.
“But she’s just been nails all the time. She’s tough as nails. So she hit that serve. To serve that ball in this magnitude of a stage, hit it the way she did, she hit it clean, which is what we always talk about, no spin and a ton of velocity, a lot of pressure.
“That’s what so great about this team. Other people can carry each other and make points and make runs.”
This Texas team was a delight. From this end, fabulous, intelligent and articulate kids to interview. Players like Eggleston and O’Neal, who made an impact off the court. People like Fleck, who at practice Wednesday veered off the court to shake hands and see how things were going. Obviously great volleyball players.
And a coach who has taken so much criticism for not winning it all for a decade with team after team bursting with so much talent.
As an aside, you want to know even one more reason why our sport is better than theirs?
About an hour and a half before Saturday’s match — Saturday’s national-championship match! — I sat down early on press row to do some story prep. Elliott saw me, walked across the floor, pulled up a chair, and we shot the bull for a while. His wife, Andrea, joined us. Hold your breath waiting for that to happen in football or basketball.
Anyway, this was our exchange in the post-match news conference Saturday night.
“Jerritt, we’ve talked about this over the last decade, and I’ve teased you because when you won 10 years ago you sat up there and you looked like death, like you just finished a marathon. Tonight, relatively speaking, you look pretty relaxed and pretty good. How do you feel personally?”
“Yeah, I’m relieved. I’m so thankful. I’m honored to be the one that got to coach with these women. I’m honored to be the one who leads this program. I’m honored that Chris Plonsky, who’s sitting in the back, hired me and believed in me when I was wet behind the ears at 32 years old or 31.
“I don’t think people understand how hard it is to get to a national championship. You basically spend every living moment thinking about what your program needs, the adjustments, the work of traveling and recruiting, the management of not only your team and your staff but the 80 people underneath that for the goal of winning a championship for the university. My goal coming in was to make this brand better and to bring in empowered women and get them better.
“I think, to your question, we do a lot of communicating with our players. And we teach them how to communicate, tell them they can come into our room and be mad at me, be upset at me, but most importantly, there’s a lot of good people surrounding them.
“Everybody that I hire are great people that love people. I think that’s a really big thing. But for me, this is just — I’m ecstatic inside. I’m still numb, I can’t believe we actually did it because we’ve been pushing for so many years. I believed that we were going to do it today. But I’m just so happy for our players and our staff.”
What he said.
GUCCI, ADIDAS AND BUSBOOM KELLY: It is wrong, especially when there’s a double standard, of taking note of what women coaches wear. But in this case, it simply had to be asked, because Louisville’s Dani Busboom Kelly was wearing an Adidas jacket specially made for her by Gucci.
Talk about stylin.’
“It goes back to last year with Anna Stevenson being obsessed with what I’m wearing for whatever reason,” Busboom Kelly said. “It’s kind of been a thing.
“Adidas came here and surprised me with this jacket.”
She said they gave it to her on Thursday, hoping Louisville would win and she could wear it in the championship match.
“So here I am.
“It’s a little tight. Not super comfortable, but I was pretty surprised. It was pretty cool.”
THE OHIO STATE FACTOR: It was uncanny how there were six degrees of Buckeye separation in the NCAA final-four weekend.
Texas opened the season with back-to-back wins at Ohio State, sweeping the Buckeyes on August 26 before winning in four the next day. A few days before that, I only semi-jokingly texted Ohio State coach Jen Flynn Oldenburg that Texas and Ohio State would play for the national title in December.
On September 3, Louisville dealt San Diego its only defeat until the Toreros lost to Texas on Thursday in the national semifinals. The next day, Ohio State won in four at Louisville. Louisville only lost twice more, at Pittsburgh and then to Texas on Saturday.
And then the Saturday before last, in the regional final in Austin, Texas beat Ohio State. Was it for the national title? Ohio State could make that claim. Why not?
That, however, was a volleyball lifetime ago for Ohio State. Since then, the college world was stunned with the news that four of its starters, setter Mac Podraza, libero Kylie Murr, outside Gabby Gonzalez and outside Jenaisya Moore have entered the NCAA transfer portal. All four were seniors this year who have played four seasons and, because of COVID, have a year remaining.
Podraza told me it’s strictly a scholarship availability issue and that the national narrative rubs her the wrong way. Accordingly, she and Flynn Oldenburg will join me for a Zoom on Monday to address the issue.
LOGAN’S LEGACY: The last word goes to Elliott.
“To become one of the greats in any sport you’ve got to win a championship. And Logan did that now. So she puts herself on an extremely elite level along with the rest of the players.
“But for what she’s done for this university, what she’s done to take advantage of every resource possible, what she’s given in every aspect, I wouldn’t be surprised if we have a statue at some point for her somewhere on campus.”
Eggleston was the VolleyballMag.com national player of the year in 2021. There’s a good chance she will repeat when our All-American teams are announced later in the week. She was named the AVCA national player of the year on Friday.