By Greg Echlin for VolleyballMag.com
AUSTIN, Texas — From being raised by a father who moved to the Dallas area as an emergency room doctor, by a mother who has worked as an interior designer and in a family where it’s not uncommon to being surrounded by relatives who are also doctors, lawyers and engineers, it would make sense for anyone to ask:
“How could Chiaka Ogbogu have allowed herself to become academically ineligible?”
Regardless, it happened and it stunned the college-volleyball world.
A year ago, as Texas was entering a season in which it would be one of the favorites to win the NCAA championship, its senior middle blocker was lost. And not just any middle. The 6-foot-2 product of Coppell, Texas, was a first team AVCA All-American in 2015 after a season in which she had 315 kills, hit .402, and had 136 blocks, nine solo. She was the MVP of the regional that launched the Longhorns to the national semifinals.
So going into 2016, Texas, which lost in the national-championship match the year before, had every reason to think all the pieces were in place, but suddenly Jerritt Elliott and his assistant coaches were left scrambling for answers.
“I’m extremely disappointed and take full responsibility for the situation I put myself and my team in,” Ogbogu said in a statement last August. “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.”
To say the least, Ogbogu’s patience was tested when she was forced to sit it out all of the 2016 season as Texas never really missed a beat. Relatively untested sophomore Morgan Johnson took over at middle and the Longhorns — advancing to the final four for the eighth time in nine years — upset top-ranked Nebraska in the national semifinals before falling in four sets to Stanford in the NCAA title match.
“As a coach there is never a smooth line to the end and there are always bumps in the road and this was one of them,” Elliott said. “This one we had to make adjustments for. It was difficult and we found a way to make it happen and at the end of the day, we got to the finals and we had a shot and didn’t do it, but now we have a team this year where we’re stronger.”
Ogbogu didn’t make the trip to Columbus, Ohio. Watching her teammates on television provided a unique perspective.
“Obviously, I’ve never watched a final four (on TV), but the commentary and seeing a different part of the court and different angles, that was interesting,” Ogbogu said.
“I know how they feel because it’s hard going there and not winning, but I think that’s a little extra motivation for this year.”
While dealing with the difficulty of being detached from the team, Ogbogu re-assessed herself.
“I’m not going to lie,” Ogbogu said in an interview in February on the Longhorn Network. “It’s been a struggle, but it’s also been a very good growing process. I made some mistakes and I was able to learn from them and grow from them with the help of my family and my teammates and the coaching staff. It’s been a really good experience to learn more about myself and what I want to do later on with my life.”
Ogbogu said that a few months into the fall, while doing an internship and not allowed to be with her team, she reached this conclusion:
“Everything we go through is part of a long process and a long-term goal. That’s something I really took away from last year.”
When Ogbogu was at the top of her game in her junior season, former setter Nicole Dalton said that her teammate has a really big heart and really cares. Ogbogu discovered last year that those feelings are reciprocated from the coaching staff and her teammates who are still around.
Ogbogu’s biggest worry when the news broke a year ago was the potential of not playing another set with the Horns.
“We really are like a super-big family, so it’s hard being away from people that you’re with every single day,” she said. “You’re just so used to being with those people.”
But she’s back for one final season and a new appreciation of her surroundings.
“You look at things a lot more clearly when you return,” said Ogbogu. “I definitely feel like I’m a much more calmer player and a much more experienced player because of that time off.”
Ogbogu, who led Coppell to back-to-back Texas 5A state championships in 2011 and 2012, finds herself on a team even deeper in talent this year with the nation’s No. 1 ranked recruiting class.
When she got to practice with the team again last spring, “I kind of felt like a freshman again,” she told the Longhorn Network.
“The coaches were joking around with me all through practice, ‘Do you still know how to do this?’ I was like, yes, I’ve been here for quite some time now,” she said with a laugh. “There’s no greater feeling than grinding with your teammates and they’ve been so accepting and so loving, so it just kind of feels like I picked up where I left off.”
Texas can only hope so. Elliott has said in the past that Ogbogu is one of the top few middles in the country who can take over a match.
“She’s doing great,” he said. “She’s come back a year more mature, has a much better understanding of the game and is playing at a really high level.”
Ogbogu will like be the first middle with Johnson, highly touted freshman Brionne Butler and sophomore middle Orie Agbaji competing for the other spot.
“It’s deep,” Elliott understated.
Texas opens its season August 25 at Florida when the Longhorns play the Gators on Friday and then Oregon on Saturday. Nebraska will also be there to play Florida and Oregon.