LINCOLN, Neb. — And, so, after the most anticipated NCAA-volleyball opener in the country, third-ranked Texas goes home 2-0, No. 2 Nebraska and No. 7 Florida get out of the first weekend 1-1, and No. 18 Oregon starts 0-2.
This has been a tremendous four-year gathering, but it has run its course. There will be new teams and a new format. But once again, this was an opening weekend to remember.
A year ago, in Gainesville, Texas lost to Florida in four and then beat Oregon in four. The Texas coaches said they were told by the NCAA selection committee that the defeat kept the Longhorns from being a top-four seed, which meant playing at home for the regional.
“These wins are very, very big,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “We’re trying to be a top-four seed and now, I think, if we can just protect our home court we’ll be in consideration.
“We need to win the Big 12, obviously, but we’re in a great position now. If we can somehow find a way to beat Wisconsin, it would put us in an even better position.
“This is really big for us.”
Saturday in the Devaney Center, Texas came back from being down 9-5 in the fifth to beat Florida 25-18, 21-25, 21-25, 25-21, 15-10.
Then in the nightcap, Nebraska beat Oregon, a team that has a long way to go but drew rave reviews from the other coaches, 25-21, 25-21, 26-24.
Texas trailed 5-1 early in the third and Florida was still up 9-5 when the Gators more or less began to fall completely apart. The team that beat Nebraska on its own court a day earlier had nine hitting errors before it ended, three by Paige Hammons, two by Taelor Kellum, and two by Thayer Hall, the last one to end it.
It was a tough finish for Hall, the outside hitter who led with 21 kills on 59 swings. She hit .203, had 15 digs and four blocks. That came on the heels of a 20-kill, 60-swing effort against Nebraska.
Junior outside Micaya White continued to sparkle and led UT with 17 kills, hitting .200 on 60 swings. She had 14 digs and four blocks. Croatian freshman Katarina Luketic added 14 kills and eight blocks.
Texas, the perennial Big 12 champion, had a whopping 20 blocks. Senior middle Morgan Johnson had 11, one solo, to go with eight kills, an ace and two digs.
“Our coaches had an awesome scouting report,” said Johnson, who Friday had nine kills and three blocks against Oregon. “So we knew their tendencies and we had a good game plan going in. And it was so easy to stick with.”
Freshman Brionne Butler, who redshirted last year, gave Texas a one-two middle punch with nine kills, hitting .500, and nine blocks, two solo.
Sophomore setter Ashley Shook had five blocks to go with her 47 assists and three kills.
“We fought super good together as a team,” Shook said. “We’ve worked a lot on trusting each other when it comes to adversity and we really focused on that. I think that helped us win both the matches.”
Shook, a product of the Chicago area who was one of the most highly sought-after setters in high school, seemed much more comfortable in this tournament than last year.
“I’ve gotten a lot more confident in myself and the coaches and all my teammates have really helped me with that,” Shook said.
“And I think all the extra reps in the gym and playing with all the hitters more has helped. Last year it was like jumping right into it with all new hitters. Now that I’ve gotten more reps with them and gotten more confident in myself I’ve gotten a lot better.”
Texas, which hit .251, goes to Wisconsin next weekend to play the Badgers and then High Point.
“This was a great time to build trust in our team and to build confidence in each other,” Johnson said. “This was our first time to go out and play against another team, so you have nerves when you try see when you don’t play against yourself in practice.
“I think there was a lot anxiety to see how we were going to be, and going out there and seeing how great we are and putting that trust in each other, it was amazing. And now we can just go higher from here.”
Hall didn’t get a lot of help offensively. Hammons finished with nine kills but hit .071. She had two aces, 13 digs and two blocks. Kellum had eight kills and three blocks and the other middle, 6-foot-8 Rachael Kramer, had eight kills but eight errors and hit .000. She had two digs and four blocks. Florida hit .170, which included minus .125 in the fifth set.
Mary Wise, in her 28th year at Florida and the only woman to coach a team into the final four twice, said through a spokesperson that she wouldn’t talk to the media after the match.
Florida of the SEC plays at home against USC, Louisville and UCF.
Mikaela Foecke was big for Nebraska of the Big Ten. The powerful senior outside had 15 kills in 40 errorless swings. Both teams had 54 digs and Oregon made some fantastic plays on Foecke.
Freshman middle Callie Schwarzenbach, playing on her birthday, had six kills in nine errorless swings.
Opposite Jazz Sweet added eight kills and sophomore outside Sami Slaughter had four kills in 15 errorless swings.
Freshman setter Nicklin Hames had 35 assists and nine digs.
“This was more like Husker volleyball,” Nebraska coach John Cook said.
His team hit .246, while Oregon hit .176.
“Overall tonight we came in with a different mentality. Last night we talked about coming in with too much energy and how that can be a bad thing and tonight I thought we played at a really consistent level,” said Foecke, who had 11 digs and a block. “Last night we were super up and down and I think that’s one of the reasons why our attacking errors. Last night we had 30-something and tonight was only 12.”
Nebraska is home next weekend for Ohio, Wake Forest and Santa Clara.
Oregon of the Pac-12 has Portland State at home on Tuesday before playing host to Long Beach State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff next weekend.
Lindsey Vander Weide led the Ducks with 11 kills but hit .135. She had an ace, nine digs and a block. Willow Johnson and Brooke Van Sickle had eight kills each and Van Sickle had 10 digs.
Said Elliott on Oregon: “I think Oregon has top-10 talent. They’ll get better as the season goes on and they can be a real threat.”
Added Cook: “I like Oregon’s team, I really like their setter (August Raskie), I think she’s doing a good job and I like her in a 5-1 than in a 6-2 … I think they have a high ceiling. They have a lot of experience out there. We could easily be in a fifth game out there right now.”