There was a time when it was almost a given that Texas — which won the 2012 NCAA championship — would make the NCAA women’s volleyball national semifinals, and with good reason: From 2008 to 2016, the Longhorns missed just one final four.
But heading into 2019, only the team’s five seniors have ever made it to the final weekend of the season, losing to Stanford in the 2016 national-title match when they were freshmen.
Now, with two of the nation’s top recruits and a highly ranked member of the 2018 recruiting class making her debut as a redshirt freshman, the Longhorns ranked No. 4 in the AVCA preseason poll with the express goal of earning a top-four seed and being one of four teams competing in Pittsburgh on December 19.
“I believe this group can compete for a championship,” said Texas coach Jerritt Elliott, who begins his 19th season at UT. “There’s obviously a lot of development that needs to happen and a lot of attention to detail, but they’ve been showing me all summer that they’ve worked hard and they’re ready to go.”
Texas lost just two — albeit important — players to graduation from a team that finished 23-5, 15-1 atop the Big 12 conference, in middle Morgan Johnson (175 kills, 111 blocks) and opposite Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani (204 kills, 61 blocks).
Asjia O’Neal, a 6-foot-3 redshirt freshman and PrepVolleyball.com’s No. 2 recruit in the country for 2018, appears more than ready to take over Johnson’s starting spot. The opposite position, however, is a different story. The main contenders for the spot are 6-2 freshman Skylar Fields and 6-3 senior Orie Agbaji, with both players earning time on the right during the annual Orange-White scrimmage earlier this month.
Fields, the No. 1 recruit in the country, touches 10-8 and spent time with the USA youth and junior national teams while she was in high school. Agbaji, on the other hand, arrived in Austin as a freshman in 2016 and earned some time as a middle that season before losing her spot to the returning Chiaka Ogbogu in 2017 and then Brionne Butler last year.
In making the transition to the pin, Agbaji might just get a last shot at earning a starting position before she graduates.
“I think for Orie, having not played a lot her previous three years, she’s the ultimate teammate, and I think that she’s ready to just bust out and have a coming out party for herself,” associate head coach Tonya Johnson said of the 6-foot-3 product of Kansas City.
But the competition is stiff.
“If the match were to start tomorrow, (Skylar) would start,” Elliott said following the Orange-White scrimmage in which Fields had 11 kills and zero errors when playing on the White, aka starting, side. “But that doesn’t mean that Orie can’t come in there and earn that back pretty fast.”
Elliott chose to redshirt a middle blocker in both of the last two seasons, so you might expect him to do the same with this year’s second freshman, 6-5 middle Molly Phillips. But Elliott quickly dismissed the possibility, especially after seeing Phillips in action as a member of the USA junior national team he coached at the U20 World Championship over the summer.
“Molly is a deceptively good volleyball player. She makes really good decisions, she’s got a very quick learning curve,” Elliott said. “She’s not one that is going to pop out at you in terms of overall athleticism, but I think she’s one of those kids that when you look at your stat book and you look at how she functions on a game film, you’re going to be very pleased with what you see.”
It’s also just a numbers game. With Agbaji moved to the right side, Texas has just three middles on its roster.
“We’re talented, but we’re not super deep in all the positions, so if we have any sort of injury, the pieces can shuffle around pretty fast,” Elliott said. “I think both Bri and Asjia are really, really good, but I don’t think they’ll put 26 great matches together. We have a lot of confidence in (Molly) coming off the bench.”
Speaking of Butler (204 kills, team-best 130 blocks) and O’Neal, give them a month or two and this pair might become the most formidable middle combination in the country. In her debut last fall after redshirting the 2017 season, Butler earned honorable-mention All-American and first-team All-Big 12 honors.
“To be so highly recruited and (redshirt), it’s a very difficult process for them,” Elliott said. “Initially, there’s lots of kicking and screaming. It’s hard on them.
“Then kind of like November-December, they start really seeing, ‘Oh my gosh, this was a really good decision.’ And then by the spring, they really kind of get to a different level from a maturity standpoint. They’re comfortable here. They’re a lot stronger because they’ve gone through the spring. They’re walking into a situation a lot more confident with who they are and what they can bring to the table and they’re really excited about it. So it’s been a great process for Asjia. I think she’s grown up a lot.”
Having been through the exact thing a year earlier, Butler has done her best to guide O’Neal through the redshirting process.
“At first, I was really disappointed because I had graduated early and joined the team in the spring,” Butler said. “Looking back, it honestly just helped me tremendously. I feel like if I hadn’t redshirted, I wouldn’t even be close to the level that I’m at right now.
“I really just told (Asjia) to stay patient and like your time is going to come.”
Butler, libero Sydney Peterson, outside hitter Logan Eggleston, and setter Jhenna Gabriel return for their sophomore seasons, completing what will be a very young starting lineup for the Horns.
(A note about Peterson, who started at libero as a freshman for the Longhorns last season: Texas opens the season Friday against visiting Northern Iowa, which happens to be coached by Peterson’s mother, Bobbi, and whose twin sister, Baylee, is an outside hitter.)
Reigning Big 12 Player of the Year and recently crowned preseason Big 12 POY Micaya White (team-high 391 kills, 244 digs, 53 blocks, 21 aces) will serve as the old lady of the 2019 Texas squad, the only senior likely to crack the starting six.
White redshirted in 2015 and then helped lead her team to the national championship match in 2016, and was the VolleyballMag.com national freshman of the year.
She then led the team in kills as a both a sophomore and a junior. The 6-1 outside hitter heads into her fifth year in Austin with her undergraduate degree in hand.
“(Micaya is) a young lady who has been through a lot, and to see where she is today and to see the type of person that she is today, I’m just super proud of her,” Johnson said. “She’s worked on herself a lot. She’s worked on her game a lot. She’s been through a lot as a young person, and I want her to go out with a bang … I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that we can send her out the right way this year.”
When asked about her goals for the season after the Orange-White scrimmage, White said, “One of my major goals is just to not have any regrets.”
Junior setter Ashley Shook could also contribute an upperclassman’s touch, but her spot in the lineup is far from guaranteed. She’s recovering from an injured ankle and just this week got out of a boot.
Midway through the 2018 season –in the middle of the Longhorns’ match versus TCU on Halloween — Shook lost her starting spot to then-freshman Gabriel. With TCU up 8-5 in the third set and having won the second to even the match at one set apiece, Elliott sent Gabriel in for Shook, and the elder player barely played for the remainder of the season.
“Ashley was struggling a little bit setting the middles, and I think the middles that we had, both of them were all-conference and honorable-mention All-American — you just you feel like when you have that kind of talent in the middle that you want to figure out ways to get them the ball,” Johnson explained.
“We just didn’t feel like there was a good connection there, and Ashley will tell you that herself. So she lost some of her confidence, and so I’m excited for her to see if she wins that spot back.”
“(Jhenna and Ashley) both had a really good spring,” Elliot added. “We got them pretty much equal playing time. I think sometimes it can be hard being in Ashley’s shoes. She was asked to carry a load and didn’t have a lot of relief her freshman year and sometimes they kind of learn the habits of overthinking. So I think that situation kind of opened her eyes and she was a great teammate and played a great role in it, but I’m fully expecting her to come out and compete.”
Elliott even said he’d be open to try out a 6-2 at some point in the season, although “Jhenna is our starter.”
“You have to have some really good pieces to be able to make (a 6-2) work. There hasn’t been a lot of national championships won by it, but there’s some huge benefits,” Elliott said. “The big problem is can you be good in rotations 1 and 4, can you function and the unity stay the same, can you maintain the same ball control?”
If Gabriel starts in a 5-1 in Texas’ first few matches of the season, the 5-8 setter creates a bit of a blocking liability when she’s in the front row.
“It’s our one blocking weakness,” Elliott admitted. “I think our blocking should be significantly better this year. But when I coached down at the (U20) World Championships, the team that won it, the setter was 5-3. You’re going to give up some things. The thing is that Jhenna’s got to make it up in a lot of different areas: Her defense, her coverage plays, all of her little plays.”
That potential vulnerability, and any others this group of Longhorns might have, will be tested early, with Texas scheduled to face preseason No. 14 USC, No. 3 Minnesota, No. 1 Stanford, and No. 9 BYU in the first three weeks.
“I don’t think anybody thinks we’re going to go unscathed through this preseason,” Elliott said. “If we do, I would be more than ecstatic, but what it does is it also gives us a huge sense of information in regards to data and systematic stuff and shows you our weaknesses pretty fast and pretty early.
“That’s what I like about scheduling so tough is that we have that opportunity to do that throughout the whole year and try to get ourselves in a position where we can compete for Big 12 championships and getting back to the final four.”
If they do, it will again be with plenty of Texas talent.
The 2012 national championship team included Texas products Khat Bell and Molly McCage. More recently, the list of Texas All-Americans from the Longhorn State has included Chiaka Ogbogu, Collins, Cat McCoy, Ebony Nwanebu, and Amy Neal. Bailey Webster came to UT from Baltimore, but she was born in Round Rock, Texas, just north of Austin and lived in nearby Pflugerville for five years, so she counts, too. On the current team, eight of 13 players hail from Texas, including likely starters White, Butler, and O’Neal and both freshmen Fields and Phillips.
“My goal has always been to keep the top kids in Texas at home,” Elliott said. “You can do that and you’re always going to be a top-10 program I think — in probably most sports.”
And if you want more on NCAA volleyball, these are just some of the stories we’ve done this offseason:
Fresno State: https://volleyballmag.com/fresno-state-2019/
San Diego: https://volleyballmag.com/san-diego-082619/