Texas to start conference play against TCU

Claire Cruz

When No. 2 Texas (10-1)  hosts TCU on Wednesday evening in its Big 12 Conference opener, it will kickoff a campaign for its fifth straight Big 12 championship.

Only three teams have claimed a Big 12 title since the conference’s inception in 1996, and Texas’ nine championships are the second most. But a conference championship isn’t Texas’ focus right now.

“To be the Big 12 champ, you’ve got to play one match at a time,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “It’s at the back of our heads that that’s our goal. The key for us is how well we prepare, how ready are we to compete and how well we can play over the long haul.”

The first test for Texas is a much-improved TCU team. The Longhorns hold a 9-0 all-time series record over the Horned Frogs, but a revamped coaching staff has TCU looking more disciplined and competitive.

TCU comes into this matchup with a 10-2 record and eight straight-set victories. The Horned Frogs have a team hitting percentage of .270 — not far behind Texas’ .293 — and a back row defense that could challenge the Longhorns hitters. Junior outside hitter Ashley Smith leads the TCU offense with 118 kills and 11 service aces, while defensively, senior defensive specialist Sutton Sunstrum anchors the back row with 152 digs.

All of TCU’s coaches are in their first year with the program, including assistant coach Brian Wright, who formerly served as Texas’ volunteer assistant coach. TCU head coach Jill Kramer is a former Horned Frog and still holds school records in several attacking categories.

“They’ve improved a lot,” senior outside hitter Amy Neal said. “They have really good coaches this year. They’re a good team, and they always bring their A game when they play us, so we’re expecting a very good game.”

Neal has been the heart of Texas’ offense and an important contributing factor to its defense, but the depth of the Longhorn roster keeps her from feeling too much pressure. Her 152 kills are closely followed by junior middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu’s 111, while senior middle blocker Molly McCage and junior outside hitter Paulina Prieto Cerame have recorded 84 kills apiece.

Six Longhorns have tallied five or more service aces, with five registering over 50 digs and four boasting more than 20 blocks. Texas’ balance makes it possible for the Longhorns to take advantage of different situations against its opponents.

“That’s a big thing about our team this year, that it’s not two or one go-to players,” Neal said. “Our offense is really balanced, so it’s kind of threatening to teams that we have a bunch of different hitters and a bunch of passers and good setters. The depth helps us a lot.”

As the conference season gets underway, Texas will have to work harder than ever to claim another title.

“Our goal is always to win a Big 12 championship,” Neal said. “But all the teams are getting stronger in the conference, so you have to take it game by game and know that every team will come out playing their best
against you.”