Fun times as journey ends with Texas, Kentucky squaring off to decide NCAA volleyball title

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Morgan O'Brien, right, embraces Texas teammate Sydney Peterson after the Longhorns beat Wisconsin/Jamie Schwaberow, NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Logan Eggleston just smiled broadly at the suggestion, which was that Texas was having more fun than ever.

“I think the anticipation of getting closer and closer to the tournament kind of made all the emotions ramp up,” the junior outside hitter said Monday after her team beat Nebraska and earned a spot in the NCAA national semifinals. 

“And now that we’re finally here, we’be been waiting for this literally since August. It’s been such a long season. We’ve been waiting for it forever and we’re finally here, so we’re kind of like, ‘Let’s put it all out there, let’s have fun, and let’s compete.’ 

“So I feel that we’re ready to be here and happy to be here.”

They’re even happier now as the fourth-seeded Longhorns (27-1) get ready to play second-seeded Kentucky (23-1) for the NCAA championship at 8 p.m. Eastern Saturday in Omaha.

We’re all having fun, of course, college volleyball fans, no doubt appreciating the last 10 days of a tournament that survived a flawed bracket, ESPN announcer-gate, the NCAA tourney having the feel of being a club volleyball tournament inside a convention center, to finally get to the end of the line.

Somehow, and it always happens, no matter what extraneous circumstances are put forth, the athletes overcome and the games play out and it’s all OK at the end. 

And so, from the time of that first serve on Friday night, September 4, 2020, in Lafayette, Louisiana, when Houston Baptist opened the season against the Ragin’ Cajuns (I know, because I was there), to this Saturday night — eight months and 20 days later — even someone not familiar with the Grateful Dead would understand what a long, strange trip it’s been.

From COVID postponements and cancelations, to the Sun Belt Conference actually conducting its entire conference season in the fall with Texas State winning the tournament, to teams like bad-luck-plagued Michigan playing just 13 matches when its first six matches were called off, to Jackson State and Rider winning their respective spring tournament titles when their opponents had to forfeit, the finish line looms large.

Big 12-champion Texas, which has won seven in a row since losing in five to Rice of Conference USA, not only beat top-seeded and previously unbeaten Wisconsin in the national semifinals, it swept the Badgers.

SEC-champion Kentucky, which has also won seven in a row since losing in five at Florida, has only lost one set in the tournament and that was Thursday when it beat sixth-seeded Washington in four. 

Each team has a bald coach who knows the ropes. 

Jerritt Elliott, in his 20th year at Texas, is playing in his fifth NCAA final. Texas lost in 2009, won it all in 2012, and got to the championship match again in 2015 and 2016.

Kentucky’s Craig Skinner, in his 16th season, may not have quite the resume, but he’s turned his program into the best in the SEC while getting so close to this point. This is Kentucky’s first trip to the national final four, but Skinner’s been this far as an assistant with Nebraska.

Worth noting is that both these programs benefitted from playing in the fall. For that matter, just four conferences did, the aforementioned Sun Belt, the ACC and SEC (which aimed for eight matches in the fall and a plan to finish in the spring), and the Big 12.

Note that the Big Ten and Pac-12 did not play in the fall.

So start with Texas, which went 14-0 in the fall to win the conference. That included back-to-back five-set victories over Baylor.

Then in the spring, Texas played a bunch, all non-conference matches, including two more wins over Baylor. 

“Because of the personalities on our team, I think there was an advantage (playing in the fall), sure,” Elliott said.

The Texas roster includes six freshmen, most significantly defensive-specialist Nalani Iosia. The 5-foot-8 product of Redondo Beach, California, had 12 digs, four assists, and two aces against Wisconsin. 

“In the spring, it was almost like they were sophomores, because they had been through it, they had routines, they came back and approached it differently,” Elliott said. “You can see it the way Nalani is playing right now. She’s not playing like a true freshman.”

Kentucky went 8-0 in the fall. All of its matches in both semesters were against SEC teams only, including that five-set loss at Florida. The Wildcats bounced back in a big way, sweeping the next night.

Senior setter Madison Lilley, the AVCA national player of the year (the VolleyballMag.com All-American teams and top awards are announced next week), said the split schedule helped her team.

“I can’t say enough how happy I am that we were able to play in the fall,” said Lilley, who told us Friday she is not returning to Kentucky for next season after she graduates. “I remember that we weren’t sure we were going to do that and I remember how hard it was to come to terms with it.

“Then finally getting the news that we were going to play in the fall and come back and play in the spring and the NCAA announcing that we would have a championship. All those moments were so pivotal for us. It allowed us to put our eyes on what we were going after and going in and taking it day by day but knowing what we were going after.

“To see it all coming together right now is rewarding beyond belief.”

Texas do-everything outside Micaya White graduated, but that opened up a door on offense to make positive changes, not the least of which was moving Skylar Fields from right side to outside hitter and Molly Phillips from the middle to right side.

But it was an unusual turn of events that made a huge impact when former Illinois libero Morgan O’Brien, who decided to walk away from the sport, instead decided to play at Texas. Her arrival allowed Texas to move Sydney Peterson, last year’s libero, to DS, and that, combined with the success of Iosia is no small thing for the Longhorns.

And what a story:

“After I finished my undergrad in three years, I just decided I was going to finish playing volleyball and choose a school based on my education. I wanted my whole decision to be focused on that without a volleyball aspect. So I didn’t actually enter the (transfer) portal,” said O’Brien, a 5-8 product of Libertyville, Illinois, north of Chicago. 

But the volleyball gods weren’t finished with her yet. 

A friend tipped off Elliott, who called Illinois and it was confirmed. O’Brien ultimately put her name in the transfer portal, and Elliott called her and, well, “we got really lucky on that. She showed up, wanted to be a part of it, and she fit in from day one.”

Seriously. O’Brien was literally going to walk away from the sport.

“Yeah,” she said. “I really wanted to focus on the next step and explore what I want to do after college. I thought I was a good time to do that while getting my masters.”

O’Brien said she wasn’t injured and “I loved Illinois. That’s a great program. I’d just had enough.”

Her family wasn’t happy with her decision. 

“They were really upset when I stopped playing.”

That and Texas was pretty good. 

“I figured I’d take a shot with a team that had a chance at winning it all,” she admitted.

“It really paid off.”

Kentucky, too, has a different look. 

Almost a year ago our Mike Miazga had his annual recruiting rankings and Kentucky was No. 2 with a class that included Elise Goetzinger and Madi Skinner, whose impacts can’t be understated.

By the way, our VBM 2017 recruiting rankings had Kentucky at No. 5 with a class that included Lilley, Gabby Curry, Avery Skinner, and Kendyl Paris. 

And now the fun continues Saturday night.

“We’re excited to be here,” Elliott said. “To be in the finals is always a rewarding place to be and obviously you’re one step away from being at the top of the mountain.”

Kentucky celebrates beating Washington in the NCAA semifinals/Mark Kuhlmann, NCAA Photos via Getty Images

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