They weren’t supposed to be here like this, but the volleyball gods have their way and as we enter into the home stretch of the 2017 season, Chiaka Ogbogu and Ebony Nwanebu, the former club teammates, and Cat McCoy, who also played for TAV, are going out together.
“We talk about it all the time, about how everything came full circle, that none of us started together, this senior class, and somehow we’re ending together and it’s awesome because we’re all great friends,” Ogbogu said. “It’s funny how things have a way of working out.”
“Things are starting to come together, which is good, because this is the time of year when everyone’s busy,” outside Micaya White said. “There are mid-terms and all these other extra things are going on and we’re still dialed in. We need to keep maintaining focus.”
Added senior libero Cat McCoy, “Since I’ve been here we always peak near the end of the year. I think our team chemistry just starts clicking in the way that we start fighting for each other on the court.”
Now three big matches loom large for Texas, starting with a visit from No. 12 Kansas on Wednesday.
After a week off, Oklahoma visits and then the Longhorns finish up the regular season at No. 19 Baylor, which upset Kansas this past Saturday. Win those three, get a break or two with the other teams along the way, and Texas might just again be a top-four seed and regional host with an eye on — this is almost hard to believe — its 12th consecutive trip the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship. Texas won it all in 2012 and lost in the title match the past two years.
“This team is stacked with a lot of really good players,” said 6-foot-1 White, one of those really good players who was the VolleyballMag.com national freshman of the year in 2016 after Texas lost to Stanford in the NCAA final. This season, the sophomore outside hitter from Frisco, Texas, north of Dallas has been magnificent again, second on the team in kills with 274, 3.43 per set. White, the daughter of former NBA player Randy White, is also third on the team in digs with 198, 2.48 per set, and has 18 aces and 70 blocks, six solo.
But what’s scary about Texas is that with all those veterans, its leading attacker is 6-2 freshman outside Lexi Sun, who has 281 kills, 3.47 per set, has 10 aces and is averaging 1.70 digs and .88 blocks.
Make no doubt about it, Sun, the VolleyballMag.com national player of last year for both high school and club, was ready for college volleyball. And she understood what she was getting into.
“It’s the culture they’ve created here,” Sun said. “They have lots of good players who have come in and out and we’re just continuing that culture and the work ethic and just competing every night for the common goal of winning a national championship.”
Sun, the product of Encinitas, Calif., who was all everything before arriving to Austin, obviously listens to what her coaches are saying.
“And we’re also focusing just on the game ahead of you and making sure to do your best to improve every night. And it’s a process and to maintain that I think that’s what Texas volleyball is all about.”
No one understands that more than 5-7 libero Cat McCoy, the only one of the three seniors who is in her fourth year. She’s a fireplug on the court, chooses the music during practice, and played in a win last week over TCU with stitches in her chin. She laughed about it but was disappointed she had to postpone taking her senior pictures.
“We’ve been to the final four every year I’ve been here and that’s an accomplishment in itself,” said McCoy, who is from Southlake, Texas, northwest of Dallas. “Obviously the ultimate goal is to win the national championship, so obviously that’s in the back of our minds. We don’t talk about it that much. Every year it’s a new team and there are going to be ups and downs and challenges to overcome. And each year is completely different from the last.”
This one is certainly different. Gone is diminutive setter Chloe Collins and in her place another freshman, 6-1 Ashley Shook, a product of Plainfield, Ill., a Chicago suburb who is not only averaging 10.71 assists per set, had 68 kills while hitting .335 and is averaging better than half a block per set.
You want blocking? Junior Morgan Johnson, the 6-3 middle from DeSoto, Texas, south of Dallas, who filled in so well last year when Ogbogu was declared academically ineligible on the eve of the start of the season, has 97 blocks, a team-high 12 solo, and has 108 kills, hitting .359.
“Having a new setter and new people to rely on just takes a lot of pressure off me,” senior right side Ebony Nwanebu said. “Having pins and middles that are being really successful this year and overall having everyone so involved in such a big way it balances everyone out.”
“Plus my back feels better because of it.”
A big reason is Ogbogu, who was supposed to finish last year, leading Texas to the title and moving on to a pro career. But that’s not how it happened.
“That was pretty tough,” McCoy said. “She’s one of my best friends. But everything happens for a reason and now we’re ending together. That’s pretty special.”
Ogbogu blames only herself for missing all of last year, but is grateful for the second chance.
“The biggest thing I wanted to take from this whole experience was just taking it one day at a time and not rush the process at all,” Ogbogu said. “I’ve just been trying to savor each day as long as I can because I know it’s about to all end soon. I’m really grateful to be back and have all my teammates around me again.”
Accordingly, Ogbogu has done well in the classroom.
“It’s all about balance and being cognizant of the time I have and the resources we have,“ she said.
On the court, she’s a wrecking crew. Ogbogu is third in kills with 195, 2.38 per set, has 13 aces and leads the Horns with 148 blocks, eight solo, a whopping 1.80 per set, second only to Florida’s Rhamat Alhassan in the NCAA this season. She even comes up with more than half a dig per set.
And then there’s the other senior, Nwanebu, who was the 2013 Volleyball magazine (which is now VolleyballMag.com) national freshman of the year at USC. But she left after her sophomore season. eventually surfacing at Texas.
“I never thought about quitting the sport because I loved it too much, but for sure I wanted a second chance,” Nwanebu said. “I think when I started at USC I wanted all the awards and accolades I could get and once I transferred I realized I just wanted to love the sport again. That’s kind of what I was seeking and I’ve found that here. It’s a new kind of love, different that what I had for volleyball.”
But even coming to Texas had a tough turn. The 6-4 outside, from Fairview, Texas, hurt her ankle and shut it down after the fourth match of 2015 and sat out the rest of the season. And that wasn’t just any match: She had 22 kills, hit .315 and had 17 digs and four blocks in a five-set win over Nebraska.
“I think this year is different because I’m a senior and this is my last hurrah,” Nwanebu said. “And I’m kind of hoping that everything just goes perfectly.”
When you think of Texas, you think of the bigs. Heck, Texas is so big and so deep that 6-4 middle Brionne Butler, one of the most highly touted middles in the country coming in, is likely to redshirt. But in practice the product of Kendleton, Texas, southwest of Houston, is as good as almost anyone the Longhorns will face in most matches.
“Obviously we can be a great blocking team, we can be a very good defensive team at times, but we don’t complement that very well with our serving. We’re not a great serving team,” 17th-year head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “So that puts teams a little bit more in system than I would like. But overall we’ve got the opportunity to be pretty good.
“If our first contact is good, we’re going to be in a lot of games. But that’s probably across the board, as well.”
None of that is lost on McCoy, who has 357 digs, 4.41 per set, to go with 91 assists and 15 aces.
“What gives me a little chip on my shoulder is that when people think of Texas they think of big blockers and people are pounding the ball on the 10-foot-line, just being super physical,” McCoy said. “And everyone kind of talks about our ball control and how it’s going to be the death of us. For me, I’m not going to let that happen and I take pride in it and that’s what drives me to be better every day.”
And now there are three matches left to their regular season and, they hope, six more in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think it’s meant to be, honestly,” said Nwanebu, averaging 2.47 kills and a block per set. “I look at my career and having to medical redshirt over something that happened like that. I had never suffered an ankle injury. My season shouldn’t have ended because of that.
“And I look at Chi and her having to sit out a year for something you wouldn’t expect, either. So it’s like destiny, almost. Those two instances happened for a reason and what other reason would it be other than to win a national championship?”
She’d get no argument from Ogbogu.
“I feel like this our year,” Ogbogu said. “This is the year it all comes together, full circle.
“I can’t see it going any other way.”