Texas aims to fulfill expectations in 2015 title run

Claire Cruz

As the start of the 2015 Texas volleyball season approaches, anticipation and expectations are building.

Longhorn fans flocked to Gregory Gym on Saturday afternoon for the Orange-White scrimmage, eager to see a preview of what this season’s team will look like. Despite losing two All-Americans to graduation, Texas is expected once again to make a run for the national title.

Texas enters the season ranked No. 3 by the AVCA Preseason Poll and as the favorite to win the Big 12 Conference. Four Longhorns earned Big 12 preseason honors, highlighted by junior middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu and freshman outside hitter Micaya White, who were named preseason Co-Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year respectively for the conference.

“I think having a program like Texas, there is always going to be pressure to get back to where we were last year,” Ogbogu said. “The good thing is the coaches always get us prepared, so when we do get there, it’s not like it’s something new.”

Ogbogu, who led the Longhorns last season in hitting percentage (.420) and was second on the team in blocks per set (1.33), will be one of several key veterans. Seniors middle blocker Molly McCage and outside hitter Amy Neal, two of three current Longhorns who played during Texas’ 2012 national championship season, will be big factors as well. McCage was selected for the All-Big 12 Preseason Team and led Texas in 2014 in blocks per set (1.38) and was second in hitting percentage (.337).

The veteran group has a lot of postseason experience. Texas has appeared in the Final Four for three consecutive seasons, but head coach Jerritt Elliott said the newcomers will fill critical roles too.

“There’s a nice blend between the two,” Elliott said. “We have a lot of players that are very capable and come in with a lot of training. Their energy and competitiveness has actually inspired the upperclassmen.”

Two of those newcomers are White and junior opposite hitter Ebony Nwanebu, who transferred from USC. White is currently recovering from surgery on a stress fracture in her leg but is expected to play. Nwanebu was the National Freshman of the Year in 2013 and was named to the All-Big 12 Preseason Team. She posted a .226 hitting percentage last year and registered 1.44 digs per set.

“There is a little bit of pressure because I’m starting all over again,” Nwanebu said. “I feel like (the team) had everything before, and I’m just adding onto it.”

Texas will face Rice on Friday at home in the first game of the season, followed by UCI on Saturday and LSU on Sunday in the American Campus Classic. The Longhorns will play three additional tournaments — two in Austin ­— in preparation for the conference season.

Four teams in the preseason top 25 will challenge Texas early on. The Longhorns will take on No. 5 Nebraska, No. 4 Florida and No. 12 Colorado State at home before facing No. 17 Arizona on the road.

“The goal is to elevate our program,” Elliott said about the upcoming season. “We’re very happy with where our program is, but we want to continue to win more championships.”