Longhorns prepare to make another run at national championship

Jacob Martella

For senior outside hitters Haley Eckerman and Khat Bell, the upcoming NCAA tournament will be a bittersweet moment.

On the one hand, the duo is ready to get going on another run toward a national championship; however, they know that any game from here on out could be their last in a Texas uniform.

“We want it to start, but then we don’t want it to,” Eckerman said. “We just know that we have to go in one game at a time.”

The Longhorns’ road back to the Final Four will go back through Austin and then through Minneapolis. Sunday, Texas was announced as the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament.

Joining the Longhorns in Austin for the first and second rounds, respectively, is Northwestern State, Texas’ opponent Thursday,  and then either Arizona State or Texas A&M — the third-straight year the selection committee has tried to put the two rivals against each other in the second round.

If another edition of the instate rivalry occurs, Bell said it would be like playing Oklahoma.

“Texas is our home state, and we want to own our home state as well,” Bell said.

For the second time in the past three years, the Longhorns enter the tournament off of a loss in the regular season finale after losing a difficult five-set match to Florida on Saturday afternoon. In the loss, Texas failed to capitalize off of 16 Florida
service errors.

Still, the last time Texas entered the tournament after a loss in 2012, the Longhorns went on to win the national championship. Eckerman said the loss to Florida refocused them and motivated them not to let that losing feeling occur again.

“That’s what happened in 2012; we didn’t want to feel that feeling of sitting in the locker room knowing that we had just lost,” Eckerman said. “So that gave us some motivation to change and move forward.”

Although Texas will face a difficult challenge in the second round — no matter whether the opponent is Texas A&M or Arizona State — the Longhorns’ path to get back to the Final Four in Oklahoma City is considered by many to be the easiest of the top-four overall seeds.

The next highest seeded team in Texas’ region is No. 7 North Carolina, which Texas would possibly face in the “Elite Eight.” The Longhorns have a potential “Sweet 16” matchup with tournament dark horse No. 15 Colorado State.

Even with a “weaker” regional bracket, head coach Jerritt Elliott said their focus is on their first two rounds.

“Both Arizona State and Texas A&M are very, very good,” Elliott said. “They’re both a threat.”

But, looking ahead toward her final games as a Longhorn, for Bell, it would mean everything to go out as a two-time national champion.

“To end my senior season with that win would be great,” Bell said.