How deep is Texas this year?
The second team should be so good, another coach said, that it would finish in the top 10.
No wonder Coach Jerritt Elliott of Texas, when asked how excited he must be to start the season, replied:
“On a scale of 1-10, probably a 12.”
But before getting to the abundance of riches on the Texas roster, how about the coaching staff?
One associate head coach is two-time Olympian Erik Sullivan, the USA’s starting libero in 2004 and also an Olympic assistant. He is starting his 12th year in Austin.
The other associate head coach is newcomer David Hunt, the former Pepperdine men’s coach. He has coached in the USA men’s and women’s national-team gyms, where he also met his wife.
And Hunt’s wife is the Texas volunteer coach, Jordan Larson. She’s an international superstar and was the MVP of last summer’s Tokyo Games, where the USA won its first Olympic gold medal. Larson, 36 and contemplating retirement, is still one of the best players in the world, which will make for some pretty stout competition in the Texas practices.
All of which led Elliott, who played at Pepperdine and Hawai’i, to quip: “We have three people who have been in the Olympics. I’m the worst coach in the gym.
“If nobody knew who the head coach was and you just had it on paper, I think I’d be the fourth seed.”
Perhaps, but the bet here is that Texas, chasing its first national championship in 10 years, should be seeded even higher than that when the NCAA Tournament field is announced November 27.
“Our team is the deepest I’ve ever had as a coach, it’s the most talent I’ve ever had,” Elliott said.
Texas is coming off a 27-2 season (15-1 Big 12) that ended with a loss to Nebraska in an NCAA regional final. The year before, in the spring 2021 season, Texas lost in the national-championship match to Kentucky.
An already loaded roster that includes Logan Eggleston — last year’s VolleyballMag.com national player of the year — has some tremendous additions that more than offset some big losses. And that was before the stunning announcement last week that Kayla Caffey, the Nebraska All-American middle, is transferring to Texas. The Longhorns were already boosted by the arrivals of Kentucky outside Madisen Skinner, UCLA libero Zoe Fleck and another Husker, DS Keonilei Akana.
“Obviously there’s been a huge amount of change in our program,” Elliott said. “We lost some really talented players, we picked up some very talented players, but the personalities we picked up are really different, and I think are super excited about being together, and I feel like we’ve got great team chemistry. I think everybody’s in it for the right reasons and wants to win.”
Elliott couldn’t comment on Caffey — she is not yet enrolled at Texas — but Caffey announced on Instagram, “I am moving to TEXAS! So excited to be joining the @texasvolleyball family for my last and final season! The amount of love and support that I have received from the volleyball community throughout this journey has been overwhelming and heartfelt. I cannot wait for this new journey! Let’s get to work! Hook ‘Em Horns!”
More than enough middles
Caffey is a 6-foot middle from Chicago who was a VBM fourth-team All-American and an AVCA second-teamer. Last season at Nebraska, she was third in kills with 255 (2.14/set while hitting .363) and led the Huskers with 118 blocks (1.11/set). In the NCAA championship match, which Nebraska lost in five to Wisconsin, she had 15 kills and four blocks. In the match in which Nebraska ousted Texas, she had seven kills and four blocks.
Even without Caffey, Texas has five middles on its roster, including another star in Asjia O’Neal, a VBM fourth-teamer. A 6-foot-3 senior from Southlake, Texas, and the daughter of former NBA star Jermaine O’Neal, she was fifth in kills with 170 (1.81/set), third in aces with 31, and second in blocks with 114, 16 solo. She has another year after 2022 if she wants to return.
“Our numbers last year passing were not where we would have liked them, so we weren’t able to get her the ball quite as much, but I think with the players we have coming in and the adjustments we’ve made in the way we pass, I think she’s going to be a lot bigger part of our offense,” Elliott said. “Karch (Kiraly) invited her out to train with the A team, so she got to do that for three weeks. She’s not undervalued in our program, but I think people will see a big difference in her this year. She’s big time.”
Bella Bergmark, a 6-2 junior, transferred from Cal, where she was second in kills (207, 2.16/set while hitting .380, fourth in the conference). A product of Larkspur, California, she led the Bears — who were winless in the Pac-12 — with 86 blocks.
“She could be the dark horse in all of this,” Elliott said. “(At Cal) She hit what she did with everyone keying on her.”
Molly Phillips, a 6-5 junior from Mansfield, Texas, was fourth in kills for Texas with 181 (1.87/set) while hitting .383 and was third in blocks with 77. Her hitting percentage was second in the Big 12 only to departed teammate Brionne Butler, a middle who hit an incredible .466. Butler, a VBM first-team All-American now with the national team, had 194 kills and led UT with 115 blocks.
“When we were recruiting (Phillips) she was like 6-1, and she grew to 6-5,” Elliott said. “She’s got one of the greatest minds I’ve ever coached. The way she sees the game, the way she plays the game. We call her the surgeon. She’s not going to overpower you, but she’s going to slice and dice you and put up really good numbers. She’s grown her game. She loves the beach game. She spent a lot of time this summer in our gym working out, but she also spent a lot of time playing in the sand, which can really develop your game.
“She’s gotten a lot stronger, she’s a great human being who cares about people, and loves Texas. She told me this year she wants to come back for another year after this year, so I was ecstatic. She obviously can play in the middle for us, but we think we’re pretty deep at that position so we’re initially going to look at her on the right side.”
Texas has two other middles in sophomore DeAndra Pierce, who is from Austin, and Marianna Singletary, a freshman from Charleston, South Carolina, whom Elliott said “is super talented and a big, physical kid.”
Eggleston leads the outsides
Eggleston, a 6-2 senior outside from Brentwood, Tennessee, was nothing short of spectacular last season for the Longhorns.
“And she’s another year older, and this game is all about experience,” Elliott said.
Eggleston led Texas with 387 kills (3.91/set) while hitting .308. She also had 44 aces, was second on the team with 2.72 digs/set and had 64 blocks, nine solo. She was the Big 12 player of the year for the second straight season.
“This is her last season, and we’re excited for her. She’s a complete human being,” Elliott said. “She’s taken every advantage she can on the court, but she’s also taken advantage off the court. She’s made a huge name for herself with NIL, she’s worked really hard and has really high goals for herself and has been really successful. She really wants to win this year.”
The strongest candidate to be the other outside hitter, since Skylar Fields (353 kills, 3.57/set while hitting .331) transferred to USC, is Skinner, a VBM honorable-mention All-American who transferred to Texas from Kentucky. Skinner, a 6-2 sophomore from Katy, Texas, led UK with 389 kills (3.78/set) and had 49 blocks. She was a standout freshman who played on the right side when Kentucky won the spring 2021 title. In the championship match against Texas, Skinner had 19 kills and hit .455. Her sister Avery had 14 kills and four blocks. Avery then transferred to Baylor, where she played last season. They are the daughters of another former NBA player, Brian Skinner.
Also in the outside mix is serving assassin Melanie Parra, a 5-11 outside from Mexico who had 60 aces last season.
“She has the complete game,” Elliott said of Parra. “She is a very good volleyball player.”
Texas will have a new setter
Saige Ka’aha’aina played for Texas last year after transferring from Utah. She’s joined by another transfer, Jenna Ewert, who came from Colorado. And there’s local freshman Marina Crownover. The majority of the sets last season came from Jhenna Gabriel, who planned to retire but now may play elsewhere, but Ka’aha’aina, from Hawai’i, had 118 assists (2.03/set). Ewert, a 5-10 senior from Antioch, California, had almost every assist for Colorado last year (1,073) and averaged 10.03/set to go with 56 blocks.
“Look, we’ve got the firepower. We’ve got to be able to pass the ball and play defense,” Elliott said. “Obviously the numbers should be there offensively. But if we can pass, set and play defense and serve, those are the big keys for our success. You’ve got to imagine we’re going to score at a pretty high rate and score well in transition.”
And that’s where Fleck comes in. A 5-6 senior from Granada Hills, California, who played her first two seasons at UC Santa Barbara, was the Pac-12 libero of the year in the spring and fall 2021 seasons. Last year, she averaged 3.99 digs/set and had 121 assists.
“She’s a great player and a better connector, and it’s been amazing having her be a part of our program,” Elliott said. “She’s a thinker, is super invested in her development, she’s super invested in connecting with every player on the team. And obviously she’s talented and has the skills.”
The talent doesn’t end there. Akana, the other transfer from Nebraska, is a 5-9 junior from Hawai’i who led Nebraska with 42 aces and was third in digs with 302. Her goal is being the Texas libero. She had a whopping seven aces in that match against Texas in the NCAA tourney last fall. In the NCAA final, she played as a DS and had an ace and a team-high 24 digs.
Reilly Heinrich from Georgetown, Texas, is a sophomore libero who will fight for court time. Also hoping to see action are a few freshmen — 6-4 Hawai’ian outside Devin Kahaawai; Kenna Miller, from Justin, Texas; and libero Emma Halter, from Indianapolis.
Plenty of Longhorns moved on
In addition to Butler, Fields and Gabriel, Texas lost a handful of other players.
Libero Nalani Iosia transferred to Michigan State, setter Naomi Cabello and outside Madison Williams went to NC State, and Sydney Petersen went to Northern Iowa.
Petersen, who graduated from Texas and planned to teach, had a chance to go home and play not only for her mother, UNI coach Bobbi Petersen, but also with twin sister Baylee.
“You’ve got to play with your sister and your mom,” Elliott told her.
It wasn’t just players who left.
Also gone is longtime assistant Tonya Johnson, now the head coach at LSU. Johnson was with Elliott twice, from 2003 to ’08 before becoming head coach at Georgia Tech, and then from 2014 to ’21.
“Tonya’s been one of my closest friends and one of my assistant coaches for a long time and someone I hold very close to my heart,” Elliott said. “She’s part of my family … I’m super excited for her. It hurts to lose her, because she was such a big part of our program and had such a big impact on so many women, and she’s a great person.”
Elliott hired Larson earlier this year, but then she got an offer to play another pro season in Italy. While she was gone this spring, Texas hired Hunt, who had been the head coach at Pepperdine the past five seasons.
Bringing in Hunt and Larson, Elliott said, “brings in some new perspective,” and that “there’s nobody who lights up a kid’s face more than Jordan Larson. It’s special.
“I didn’t know how she would be in the gym and made her get after it right off the bat, and she’s an elite coach. She sees the game well, has high energy, she has every tool to be a world-class coach. You never know how players will be as coaches, right? But she has super powers as a coach, too. I’m happy for her and happy that she’s in our program.”
Hunt, although a men’s coach the last five years, has coached women at the highest level, including the 2016 Olympic team when he was an assistant to Karch Kiraly.
“He really knows the game, he studies it, he is all-in and is studying 24-7. He comes from a great mentor in Marv Dunphy, one of the greatest coaches we’ve ever had in this country, and his pedigree speaks for itself, but he’s worked his way up through the ranks.”
And that’s not to forget Sullivan, who starts his 12th season with Elliott and was on the staff for the 2012 NCAA title.
“He’s been with the men’s Olympic teams, and he brings a tremendous amount of experience not only as a player but as a coach,” Elliott said. “He has grown so much and is so great to have.
“So I feel like I have two other head coaches in my gym, and they challenge each other and they challenge me. It’s just a great situation, and we work well together. These coaches are about how we can make our kids better as humans, which is really important to me, and how we can make them better as volleyball players.”
“We know we have the talent.”
Texas plays a strong non-conference schedule, which is important when you consider that the Big 12 is the lowest regarded of the Power 5 leagues.
Texas opens with back-to-back matches at Ohio State, one of the favorites in the Big Ten. Then it comes home for Minnesota, another B1G powerhouse, before heading to play at Stanford, probably the best team in the Pac-12. The Longhorns also will play UC Davis, Denver, Houston and High Point.
Texas has its first practice Tuesday.
“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,” said Elliott, whose teams, since winning it all in 2012 lost in the NCAA title match in 2015, ’16 and ’20.
“And if we can get that going, which we believe we can, we’re gonna be in the mix, right? But that’s why sports are fun, nothing is guaranteed. We’ve got to go out and prove it. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”