AUSTIN, Texas — As they warmed up for practice the day before the start of the 2019 NCAA Tournament, Texas State players started to juggle the small massage balls used to roll out knots in muscles. It was just typical antics from a fun-loving team, according to long-time Bobcats coach Karen Chisum, although she admitted this was the first time she’s seen them try out juggling. Usually it’s more along the lines of filming videos for Tik Tok or dancing.
While her players chased after dropped balls and then moved on to doing handstands, Chisum did some juggling of her own, of mixed feelings about being back in Gregory Gymnasium at the start of another national postseason.
Chisum has been the head coach at Texas State since 1980. In that timeframe, the Bobcats have made the NCAA Tournament 11 times, and eight of those times the NCAA has sent Texas State to Austin.
Texas State (24-8) plays UC Santa Barbara (22-5) in the first match at 4:30 p.m. Central Thursday, followed by second-seeded Texas (21-3), which tied for the Big 12 title, versus American East-champion UAlbany (16-10) at 7 p.m. Both matches will be shown on the Longhorn Network.
The winners play at 7 p.m. Friday.
“Your first thought, you’re disappointed, for the kids, the student-athletes, the experience,” Chisum said of finding out her team’s tournament draw, “For our fans, for Bobcat nation, we’re excited because we’re 30 minutes from here. We’ll have a good crowd.”
Five times, the Bobcats faced the always formidable Longhorns in the first round, but last year, they finally broke through and avoided being the fourth-seeded team in Austin, instead facing Rice in the first round. Their five-set victory over the Owls marked the first NCAA Tournament win for Texas State.
“(UCSB) looks a lot like us. They’ve got a No. 4 who is like our No. 4, she’s their key kid,” Chisum said, referring to her star outside hitter Cheyenne Huskey and UCSB outside Lindsey Ruddins. “They run it pretty quick. They run the 6-2, they’ve got three hitters at all times and they have a backline hitter.”
Speaking of Huskey, the senior setter-turned-outside-hitter who transferred to Texas State ahead of the 2018 season after spending two with Florida, has accumulated 416 kills on 1,032 attacks this season, has 54 aces, and was recently named Most Outstanding Player of the Sun Belt tournament.
“(Cheyenne’s) a big kid, she’s fun, she’s athletic,” Chisum said. “She’s integral. There’s no doubt. She helped us turn the program around last year. She hits high, she’s got a fast arm swing, great arm swing, and knows the game. I think that’s key. Her volleyball IQ is very high.
“When a team is scouting us, they’re saying, ‘Watch No. 4,’ which is great because that’s going to open up No. 16 (sophomore opposite Janell Fitzgerald), that’s going to open up No. 10 (outside Caitlan Buettner), that’s going to open up our middles (Tyeranee Scott and Jillian Slaughter).”
Texas State sophomore setter Emily Dewalt certainly has the hands and the volleyball IQ to expertly distribute the ball among all five of her attackers. Dewalt earned the Sun Belt setter-of-the-year award, in addition to being named to the All-Sun Belt first team, and enters Thursday’s match averaging 10.25 assists per set.
“Emily’s good. She’s deceptive,” Chisum said. “I’m on the bench half the time and I think she’s setting a back and the next thing you know it’s somewhere else and I’m going, ‘Why — oh, good job.’”
Chisum calls Austin home-away-from-home because of how many times her Bobcats have played there. In contrast, no one on the UCSB roster has ever played in Gregory Gymnasium, although coach Nicole Lantagne Welch was here as an assistant at Texas A&M.
“I would call them unorthodox,” Lantagne Welch said of this Texas State team. “They run a little bit different system with their defense and just some different things that they do out of serve receive even. So it’s a little unique.”
Gaucho star Ruddins has been the spark to led UCSB to its 29th tournament appearance, first since 2013. Their 22-5 record marks the best performance for the Gauchos since 2009, and with a 12-4 Big West record, they finished third behind Hawai’i and Cal Poly.
This season, Ruddins became UCSB’s all-time rally-scoring-era kills leader and the only player in Big West history to accumulate 12 weekly honors in her career. She’s fifth in the conference record books with 1,929 career kills. As a senior, she’s averaged 4.42 kills per set, good for 23rd nationally, 398 total, to go with 237 digs and a career-high 60 blocks.
“(Lindsey’s) just one of those kids that’s a six-rotation outside hitter that can do everything and gets thrown into the passing and she can handle the ball as well,” Lantagne Welch said. “She’s a feared attacker, she’s a big-time blocker, and she’s a good defender. She just has a little bit of everything and she’s good in crunch time.”
Redshirt-freshman Tallulah Froley has also made a major impact for the Gauchos. The opposite hitter ranks second on the team with 274 kills, hitting .307, making her the second most efficient hitter on the team, among players with at least 50 attempts. Froley and Ruddins both made the All-Big West first team.
“(Tallulah’s) added balance especially giving us the offense on the right side attack,” Lantagne Welch said.
One of UCSB’s setters in its 6-2 offense is also a freshman. Romoni Vivao made the Big West all-freshman team, collecting 488 assists (5.30 per set). Her counterpart, sophomore Olivia Lovenberg, has 610 assists and together the setters have quarterbacked UCSB to a .255 team hitting percentage.
“Passing is always going to be key but we have a really good offensive rhythm when we’re in system,” Lantagne Welch said. “I think we can put up a pretty decent defensive plan — the fact that we can play pretty good on both sides of the ball is something that’s been big for us.”
With star outsides leading the offense for both UCSB and Texas State, right-side blockers will be tested on Thursday. For UCSB, which had its opposites doing extra blocking reps at the end of practice Wednesday while the rest of the team stretched, that means Froley (60 blocks, 3 solo), as well as Tasia Farmer (15 blocks) and Kjia Rivers (40 blocks). On the Texas State side, Fitzgerald has 60 total blocks, five solo, while setter Dewalt has 50, three solo.
Of course, Texas, the overall No. 2 seed, will be the far and away favorite to be the last team standing come Friday night and move on to host the NCAA regional — something they haven’t done the last two years when they were seeded outside top four. The Longhorns have lost just three matches this season: To tournament No. 3 seed Stanford on September 8, at Rice on September 18, and at tournament No. 1 seed Baylor on November 20.
Texas is known for its high-powered offense and this team is no different. It starts, but certainly doesn’t end, with senior outside hitter Micaya White, who has a team-high 342 kills, hitting .303. Then there’s sophomore outside Logan Eggleston (298 kills, hitting .303 and 47 aces), and newly crowned 2019 Big 12 Freshman of the Year Skylar Fields (220 kills, hitting .330, team-high 81 blocks).
You won’t find a more athletic pair of middles than Asjia O’Neal and Brionne Butler. O’Neal has 110 kills, hitting .359, with 80 blocks. Butler missed a number of matches at the beginning of the season with an injury, but has still managed to collect 73 blocks and 101 kills, hitting .422. Freshman Molly Phillips, who would be a starter on almost any other team, plays their backup and serves as a blocking sub for 5-8 setter Jhenna Gabriel when needed. Filling in and serving whatever role her team needs, she’s seen action in all 24 matches this season and has 73 kills, hitting .301, with 69 blocks.
As a team, the Longhorns have the best hitting percentage (.319) in the country, one of just three teams hitting above .300. Given that, how’s this for a scary thought:
“(At Monday’s) practice, you could see like, oh wow, there’s a whole ‘nother level that these girls have,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “I think they’re starting to feel it and taste it and get excited about it.”
When talking about Butler, who has had to limit her practice and modify a lot of her training to manage the aforementioned injury throughout the season, Elliott said, “In the last week and a half, she’s practiced every day and (Monday) she was the most dominant she’s ever been.
“She’s a player that can single-handedly defeat a team from an emotional standpoint because you don’t have an answer. She can control the game defensively, control the game offensively.”
Out of the 64 teams in the tournament, there’s not a single one that envies Albany. The Great Danes started the season 2-9, but then won 14 of the remaining 15 matches in the season to win the regular-season conference title and the conference tournament.
Senior outside hitter Akuabata Okenwa, most outstanding player of the America East tournament, leads Albany with 324 kills, hitting .292, with 78 blocks. Middle Danielle Tedesco joined Okenwa on the all-conference first team and leads the Great Danes with 114 total blocks. Tedesco and the team’s other middle Noa Brach, a native of Germany who has 106 blocks for the year, Albany ranks 15th nationally with 2.72 blocks per set.
Thursday’s match marks UAlbany’s 11th NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 2011. Coach Josh Pichard is in his first season as the team’s head coach, although he served as an assistant on the staff in 2015 and as an associate head coach for the last three seasons. He and his coaching staff, which includes assistants Desma Colburn, Adam Rollman, and Dennis Fung, earned the America East coaching staff of the year designation.
Elliott and his team of burnt-orange-clad Longhorns are obviously aware that they’re heavily favored and should easily win Thursday’s match with the underdog UAlbany. But, Elliott spoke for all coaches of seeded teams when he said:
“We need to take this one match at a time, and the parity amongst the teams in women’s volleyball continues to grow and we’re not going to overlook anybody and do the best job preparing our team so they can be successful each night out.
“It’s more about how we play, how we prepare, how we deal with them because we know from previous years that teams come out and they play at a completely different level when they see us across the net.”