Longhorns overachieve despite title loss

Michael Shapiro

The Longhorns exited the court on Dec. 19 with their heads hung low. As streamers fell from the rafters of the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska, Texas knew another year had passed without a national title. After a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Nebraska in the national championship game, the memory of the Longhorns’ 2012 title seemed more and more distant.

But 2015 was far from a failed season for Texas. Despite the loss to Nebraska, the Longhorns achieved another Big 12 title and another Final Four appearance — both with an air of camaraderie and togetherness unseen from past Texas teams.

“It’s a tribute to the young women that are in this program,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said prior to the national title game. “Their unity and will to play for each other really stood out to me. It’s a special group.” 

The Longhorns entered the 2015 season under the weight of familiar expectations. They came into the year sporting four consecutive Big 12 titles and three-straight runs to the Final Four. As is now customary on the Forty Acres, the talk around the Longhorns was championship or bust. 

“We expect to be in that position every year,” Elliott said. “We want to put ourselves in a position where we can contend for Final Fours. That’s the culture we’ve tried to create here.”

But expectations of a title run were met with caution early in the season. Texas’ 2015 roster was without some key pieces from the 2014 team, most notably outside hitter Haley Eckerman. Eckerman left the Longhorns program as one of the most decorated — and dominant — players in program history, racking up three First-Team All-American honors during her time in Austin.

“Haley was a great player here and a great leader for us,” junior middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu said in a preseason interview. “But it’s up to us to come and make up for her loss. It’s on everyone.”

It quickly became evident that making up for Eckerman’s departure would not be a one-woman effort. The 2015 season saw an increase in production throughout much of the Longhorns squad, specifically from senior Amy Neal. 

Neal, an outside hitter from Austin, took charge as Texas’ most potent offensive threat. Her combination of pinpoint execution and heady play more than made up for Eckerman’s absence, as she was named Big 12 Player of the Year.

Texas’ regular season acted as a formality. The Longhorns steamrolled its way through Big 12 play once again, earning a 15-1 conference record en route to a fifth consecutive Big 12 championship.

They hit their stride entering the NCAA tournament, and comfortable defeats over Fairfield and Purdue in the opening two rounds only solidified the Longhorns as championship contenders. Following a marathon five-set victory over Florida in the Elite 8, they headed to Omaha to participate in a fourth-straight Final Four. 

But Texas couldn’t complete the title chase. A raucous pro-Nebraska crowd, combined with the stifling Cornhuskers defense shut down Texas’ potent attack in the championship game, reducing the Longhorns to a shadow of their high-flying selves. Another year in Austin passed by with no national championship.

“I’m disappointed for our team,” Elliott said postgame. “They fought all year but just couldn’t get it going tonight.”

But despite the lack of hardware, 2015 was far from a failure for Texas volleyball. A Final Four appearance is a notable accomplishment in itself, even more so when it happens nearly every year. The Elliott machine seems to run itself at this point, no matter which six players are on the court. 

“We’ve set a standard at this program,” Elliott said. “We expect to be in a position to compete for a championship every year.”