Longhorns ready to square off vs. BYU in Final Four

Jacob Martella

OKLAHOMA CITY–The most overused cliché in sports is the David vs. Goliath story, where the underdog team finds a way to win against a team they weren’t supposed to beat.

It’s a feel good, Cinderella story that almost everyone roots for—everyone that is, except for the team that is looking to win and advance.

Headed into its national semifinal match, Texas finds itself in this very situation facing a BYU team that almost no one outside of Provo, Utah, would have picked to make it this far.

“We’re ready to play,” senior outside hitter Haley Eckerman said. “It doesn’t matter who it is. We’re just ready to battle.”

While Texas spent the entire season ranked inside the top ten in the AVCA coach’s poll, BYU fluttered in and out of the top ten. Despite finishing the year with a 25-4 record, the Cougars ended up 17th in the RPI and had to travel for the first and second rounds.

Along the way to the Final Four, BYU sprung upset after upset, taking down No. 11 Arizona, No. 6 Florida State and capping it all off with a dominant 3-0 sweep of No. 14 Nebraska in the Seattle Region final on Saturday.

“Now, we're just in a position that these kids, there's some sort of confirmation of their hard work in terms of they're the ones that put out this goal,” said BYU head coach Shawn Olmstead. “To be able to actually see a plan in place in life and here it is and here's what we've got to do to get there, I mean, that's pretty darn remarkable.”

On the other hand, Texas breezed through its first three matches of the tournament, including wins over Arizona State and No. 15 Colorado State while not dropping a single set; however, the Longhorns met a formidable opponent in North Carolina in the Minneapolis Region final.

After taking the first set, the Longhorns struggled against the Tar Heels as North Carolina rolled off point after point en route to a 25-18 set win to take all of the momentum into intermission. But Texas rolled out in the second half of the match taking the third set and then surviving a marathon fourth set to advance to its third-straight Final Four.

Eckerman, who was triple-block most of that night by the Tar Heels, said that there are a number of things they can take from that match over to their semifinal meeting with BYU, especially not underestimating any team.

“North Carolina played amazing against us and challenged us,” Eckerman said. “It showed that when we are challenged, in the fourth set especially, if we look each other in the eyes and know we can do this, then we can come out and win.”

But BYU isn’t planning on backing down now that they’ve made it this far and they’re not necessarily taking on that underdog role.

“Honestly I haven't thought too much about it,” Olmstead said. “These kids haven't worried too much about that either.”

The Cougars bread and butter this season has been their block. BYU led the country with 441 total blocks and 3.87 blocks per set and posted 12 blocks in the win over Nebraska. Up front the Cougars are led by a trio of blockers in sophomores Whitney Young and Amy Boswell and senior Jennifer Hamson who each have 1.35 blocks per set or more this season.

But Eckerman said that North Carolina trying to block her with three people has helped her prepare for BYU’s block.

“It showed on the last kill I got that I had to take different swings,” Eckerman said. “That’s the thing about being an outside hitter is that you have to manage.”

Hamson has also been great for the Cougars on the attack as well, posting 3.75 kills per set, including nine against Nebraska. Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott said that they have to make sure they contain her.

“She can play at a very high above the net,” Elliott said. “She can pretty much go over us if she's in rhythm and able to score. And when she's on fire, she's one of the best players in the country.”

If Texas were to win the semifinal match, a difficult match in the championship would await with Stanford and Penn State squaring off in the other semifinal Thursday night.

Stanford comes into its semifinal match after being the top team in the coach’s poll since Sept. 8, the first poll after they defeated Penn State on Sept. 5 in a five-set thriller. The Cardinal come with the second-highest hitting percentage of the four teams remaining at .316 and junior setter Madi Bugg leads the nation with 12.11 assists per set.

“We had a great match with them and one of our goals certainly this year is to be one of the teams that works to get better every week,” Dunning said.

Penn State comes in looking to score a championship in the home area of senior setter Micha Hancock, who’s from Edmond, Oklahoma. Hancock, who leads the fifth-seeded Nittany Lions 11.53 assists per set and leads the country with 1.03 aces per set, said she was initially excited to play the Final Four in her home state, though it has come with distractions.

“When I found out it was here I was like, no way, it’s my senior year and there’s nothing more to get back here to have a chance to compete for the championship,” Hancock said. “It’s one game at a time for me and my team to see what we can do.”

But the task at hand for the Longhorns is to beat an unseeded BYU team. In each of the last two trips to the Final Four, Texas is 1-1 against unseeded teams in the national semifinal—beating Michigan 3-2 in 2012 and losing 3-1 to Wisconsin last year. And with the goal seeming to always be to get to the Final Four, Elliott said they’re ready to get another shot at winning it all.

“We've got another great opportunity in front of us with BYU,” Elliott said. “And hopefully we can make our university proud by the way we fight and get out there and compete.”