Longhorn blockers, hitters helped Texas start perfect

Claire Cruz

After All-Americans Haley Eckerman and Khat Bell graduated, some thought 2015 would be a rebuilding year for the No. 3 Texas volleyball squad.

Eckerman was the top hitter on the team, registering the most serving aces and the fifth-most total blocks. Bell had the second-highest number of kills and third-most blocks. 

But when Texas competed in the American Campus Classic last weekend, it became clear who would fill the void. Strong performances from senior middle blocker Molly McCage, senior outside hitter Amy Neal, junior middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu, junior outside hitter Paulina Prieto Cerame and freshman middle blocker Morgan Johnson put to rest any doubts about Texas’ hitting and blocking abilities.

“Losing Haley [Eckerman] and Khat Bell, we knew we had to replace them with good players,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “We made some big plays with our blocking, and that was the challenge, and we did it.”

Texas stymied all three of its opponents’ offenses. Rice hit just .067 percent on 25 kills in the season opener, UC-Irvine tallied 24 kills and a .033 hitting percentage, and LSU notched 35 kills and a .069 percentage. Opponents averaged 9.33 kills per set against the Longhorns and just 12 points per set.

McCage, Ogbogu and Johnson totaled 28 total blocks with just four blocking errors through nine sets. The Longhorns tallied 10 blocks against Rice, 11 against UC-Irvine and seven against LSU. 

McCage led Texas with 14 total blocks. Ogbogu followed with 13, and Johnson registered 11 in her first collegiate matches. McCage entered this season at No. 7 on Texas’ all-time block assists list with 357 in her career. In 2014, the Longhorns garnered 317.5 total blocks, averaging a 3.02 blocks per set, which they matched in their opening weekend with 3.11 blocks per set. 

Johnson’s solid debut earned her Big 12 Conference Rookie of the Week honors. Along with her double-digit block numbers, she boasted a team-high .407 hitting percentage and 15 kills. 

“I thought Morgan [Johnson] had a really good first three matches,” Elliott said. “[She] didn’t seem rattled at all and was really poised and put up some good numbers for us.”

Ogbogu’s .405 hitting percentage was the second-highest on the team, and her 22 kills tied for second-most with McCage. Neal’s 33 kills and 3.67 kills-per-set average were highest for the Longhorns. Neal added a team-high five service aces and 28 digs, the second most on the team. 

Texas will be challenged by No. 4 Florida and No. 5 Nebraska this weekend in Austin, and after this weekend, there is confidence the team can win big games. 

“I thought we had some spectacular play by a lot of players in different matches,” Elliott said. “We feel pretty good about our lineup right now, and we got some good production out of people, as well as consistency.”