Volleyball season preview: Despite offseason turnover, No. 2 Longhorns bring talented roster into 2022

Tori Garcia, Sports Reporter

The Texas Longhorns’ 2021 volleyball season ended in bitter defeat after being upset by Nebraska at Gregory Gym in the NCAA Tournament. Despite falling short in the Elite Eight matchup, the Longhorns still finished last year with a 27-2 overall record, but offseason departures in the months since presented a challenge in rebuilding for 2022.  

Three starters left the program, including opposite hitter Skylar Fields, middle blocker Brionne Butler and setter Jhenna Gabriel. Despite the turnover, Texas was ranked No. 2 in the country in the AVCA preseason poll behind Nebraska and ahead of last year’s national champion, Wisconsin. Expectations are still high because of the way head coach Jerritt Elliott filled the gaps on his roster this offseason.  

Acquiring UCLA transfer Zoe Fleck, a two-time Pac-12 Libero of the Year and an All-American selection last year, will help solidify Texas’ back line as the Longhorns continue their search for the program’s first national championship since 2012.

With Fields, who had the second-most kills on the team (353) in 2021, transferring to USC, sophomore Madison Skinner was recruited from Kentucky to fill her shoes as outside hitter. As a true freshman at Kentucky, Skinner played a key role in the Wildcats’ national championship run in 2020, averaging 3.1 kills per set. She is expected to be a key piece of this year’s Texas squad.

Texas sealed the deal with some of the top recruits in the nation, like libero Emma Halter and outside hitter Devin Kahahawai. Several experienced veterans are also returning to the court, including middle blockers Molly Phillips and Asjia O’Neal and outside hitter Logan Eggleston. With this lineup, the Longhorns appear to have another loaded roster for 2022.

“We are super excited about this group that is going to come in and continue the great tradition of Texas volleyball,” Elliott said when announcing his recruiting class. “We have some great athletes that will immediately add to this veteran group, and we can’t wait to get them here. They all have great character and are committed to being part of a program bigger than themselves.”

Halter was the top prospect from the state of Indiana in the class of 2022. She was named to the JVA All-National Team from 2019-21 and was a two-time MVP for Roncalli High School volleyball. 

“Emma is a feisty, energetic libero that brings not only a great attitude but also a high level of skill to pass and play defense,” Elliott said. “She’ll be so much fun to coach in our gym because of the energy she brings.”

Kahahawai, 2021-22 Gatorade Hawaii player of the year, was crucial in leading Kamehameha Kapalama High School to the 2021 Division I state championship.  

“Devin continues our tradition of great recruiting in the state of Hawaii,” Elliott said. “She brings a high-level volleyball IQ and has the ability to be an elite six-rotation player for us that can contribute in many different ways.”

In a surprise move, Texas landed sophomore libero and defensive specialist Keonilei Akana in a transfer from Nebraska. Akana appeared in all 32 games for the Huskers in 2021, leading the team in aces, and her presence will further solidify the back row. 

Texas will face five teams ranked in the preseason Top 25 in 2022. The season begins with a two-game series at No. 7 Ohio State on Aug. 26 and Aug. 27 followed by non-conference matchups with No. 5 Minnesota and No. 14 Stanford.

Big 12 conference play begins in September, and matchups with No. 16 Baylor and No. 23 Kansas are on the horizon. The Longhorns will hope to avenge their only regular-season loss to Baylor last year in their quest to capture the team’s 14th Big 12 title since 2007.