With NCAA tournament nearing, Longhorns focused on stopping first set blues

Jacob Martella

At first glance, the Longhorns’ volleyball record shows they’re well on their way to another run at the national championship.

With a 21-1 record — the lone loss coming at home against Oklahoma — and its fourth Big 12 championship already in hand, Texas appears set to contend for its second NCAA title in three years. But on a closer look, specifically the last four matches, there’s a troubling trend the Longhorns are looking to end before the tournament rolls around. 

The Longhorns have dropped the first set in three of their last four matches, and, in two of those, the first sets haven’t even been close.

“We’ve got to come out better in game one,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “We’ve got to be able to get everyone playing on the same night.”

In each of those first set losses, the Longhorns have struggled to take control of the match early, posting only a combined .159 hitting percentage. Meanwhile, their opponents in those matches, which include Oklahoma and Kansas State, have posted a hitting percentage of .316 and outscored Texas by an average of five points in the first set.

“I think the dynamics about the first set [have to change] and just coming out strong and just knowing that every team is going to play their best against us no matter who it is,” senior outside hitter Khat Bell said.

Once the first set passes, however, the Longhorns have returned to their dominant ways. Texas outscored Kansas State and Baylor by an average of 8 points and posted a .253 hitting percentage while holding them to just a .088 hitting percentage.

Still, Elliott knows they have to come out ready to play right from the start, especially against tougher teams.

The Longhorns likely won’t be able to afford a similar start to their match Saturday against a Kansas team that’s looking to solidify itself for an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament.

The Jayhawks come into the match tied for second in the Big 12 and riding a three-match winning streak, which includes a sweep of in-state rival Kansas State. They also received votes in the latest AVCA rankings. Kansas is  second in the conference in opponent hitting percentage and first in assists and kills per set.

Kansas also boasts three of the top four hitters in terms of hitting percentages in the conference. Freshman middle blocker Kelsie Payne leads the Jayhawks with a .362 hitting percentage, while fellow freshman middle blocker Kayla Cheadle and sophomore middle blocker Tayler Soucie are right behind with hitting percentages of .354 and .331, respectively.

Following the match against Kansas, Texas will close out the Big 12 season at TCU on Wednesday and then face Florida at Gregory Gym in a nonconference battle on Nov. 29 before the NCAA tournament.