Showdown with Nebraska highlights Longhorns’ opening weekend

Steve Helwick

No. 2 Texas will face a familiar foe in its season-opening weekend at the VERT Challenge in Eugene, Oregon.

After playing Oregon on Friday, the team will take on No. 1 Nebraska on Saturday. The Huskers stifled the Longhorns in the National Championship last December, 3-0.

“My hat goes off to Nebraska,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said after the match on Dec. 19, 2015 “They never cracked… They were relentless in the pressure of siding out and we weren’t able to get any runs going.”

The VERT Challenge not only showcases the nation’s top-2 teams, but will give Texas’ six freshmen their first taste of high-level competition. 

“[The tournament] helps us gain some experience, especially for our freshmen, to see what it’s actually like to gain a little bit of what to expect moving forward in the season,” senior setter Chloe Collins said after the VERT Challenge on Sept. 5, 2015.

Texas defeated Nebraska but fell to Florida in the 2015 VERT Challenge in Austin. The team looks to sweep the event and pick up a signature win this weekend.

Despite adding six freshmen, the Longhorns will count on their upperclassman against Oregon and Nebraska. Senior setter Chloe Collins, senior outside hitter Paulina Prieto Cerame and junior outside hitter Ebony Nwanebu all were selected to the Preseason All-Big 12 team.

Nwanebu rejoins the team after missing all but one game with a back injury in 2015. She had a career night in the VERT Challenge against Nebraska last September, recording a team-high 22 kills, a career-high 17 digs, and four blocks in the team’s 3-2 victory.

Elliott is keeping high expectations for the 2016 season. But he said the team is still a work in progress heading into the season opener.

“It’s so early and it’s so hard to get to all the different skill sets that we need, so this is kind of a truck in motion,” Elliott said. “We’ve got some time to get it going, but we’ll get some things off of this film and keep moving forward.” 

Texas looks to retain its place as one of the powerhouses in volleyball, reaching four straight Finals Fours and securing the Big 12 title in eight of the last nine seasons. But Nebraska will test the team early after finishing 2015 with 16 consecutive wins.

Without much time for tune-up, Elliott hopes the younger Longhorn team come together and find championship chemistry to start the year.

“It’s going to be upperclassmen putting their arms around the freshmen because they’re going to be playing some and getting them in the speed of the game fast enough,” Elliott said.