Texas faces uphill battle in Palo Alto

Justin Martinez

Nobody said it’d be easy.

In college volleyball, titles are earned in December. Perhaps no program understands that more than the Texas team.

The Longhorns have made it to the past three NCAA Championships, and this year’s title run continues on Friday as they head to Palo Alto, California, to take on No. 11 Utah at 8 p.m. CST.

Texas enters the match fresh off a second-round sweep at home against North Carolina State on Dec. 2. The Longhorns held their composure in the do-or-die showdown, trailing at the start of all three sets before rallying each time to win.

The victory marks the 12th-straight year that Texas has advanced to the Regional Semifinal, an accomplishment made possible by the team’s elite play as of late.

It’s been 91 days since the Longhorns last tasted defeat at the hands of No. 7 Minnesota on Sept. 8. Since then, Texas has gone on a 20-game win streak, including 13 sweeps and three victories over the current top-25 opponents.

“I just think it was a matter of getting comfortable with each other,” senior middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu said. “I think once we got the team chemistry down, it just felt a lot more smooth going into Big 12 play and now the postseason.”

The Longhorns hope to build off that momentum as they take on a Utah in their first road match of the NCAA Tournament. Texas will place its focus on senior Adora Anae, a 6-foot-1 outside hitter with a season average of 4.35 kills per set.

The Longhorns will also be tasked with the challenge of playing in a Pac-12-friendly environment in Palo Alto.

But Texas is used to this. The Longhorns faced five top-25 opponents on the road this season, going 4–1 during that stretch. And after falling just short of having home-court advantage throughout regional play, they’ll have to repeat that magic on Friday.

“One of the reasons I scheduled tough is to try and get (the team) acclimated to those environments,” head coach Jerritt Elliott said. “The seeding didn’t work out the way we planned, so now we have to go on the road, and it bodes well that we’ve been in these situations.”

The Longhorns will lean on the right hand of freshman outside hitter Lexi Sun as she makes her return to her home state of California. The Encinitas native led the Longhorns with 313 kills in the regular season, but now she’ll be playing on the biggest stage of her young career.

Fortunately, Sun has a support group of four seniors on the team, and they’ll look to guide the young Longhorns as they reach the final stretch of the year.

“It’s a stressful time, but it can be exciting if you allow it to be,” Ogbogu said. “We just remind (the freshmen) that if they follow the upperclassmen lead, it’s going to be okay.”

With each game possibly being their last, the Longhorns are locked in on raising the trophy for the first time since 2012.

“Knowing what’s on the line heightens everyone’s awareness across the country, and so you see a much higher level of play,” Elliott said. “But we’ve been working for this moment all year long, and now we’re here. We’re just going to put our best foot forward.”