Veteran middle blocker Asjia O’Neal fuels No. 1 Longhorns with new connection

Tori Garcia, Sports writer

Despite dropping its first match of the season to Iowa State on Thursday, Texas volleyball has sprinted out of the gates to a 14–1 record and is the top-ranked team in the country.

Head coach Jerritt Elliott has relied on getting his middle blockers more involved this year, and redshirt senior Asjia O’Neal has been a major factor in that middle usage on the court this season.  

“We challenged (the middle blockers) to get a little bit more aggressive,” Elliott said Oct.12. “They were able to do that.”

Within the first 15 games, O’Neal has noticeably improved her ball striking compared to previous seasons. With 109 kills already under her belt, O’Neal is only 61 kills from meeting her 2021 season total of 170 with nine games left to play in the regular season, excluding possible NCAA Tournament matches. Despite the Longhorns’ loss Wednesday, O’Neal notched a new career-high with 17 kills.  

O’Neal has dominated the court, currently sitting at a .480 hitting percentage, which is the highest her hitting percentage has been so far in her Texas career.  

“My connection with (setter) Saige (Ka’aha’aina-Torres) is really good,” O’Neal said. “We work really hard in practice to make sure that we are comfortable. Overall, I think it’s just our relationship and the connection we have created off the court that has moved onto the court.”

O’Neal’s most notable games this season have been against Oklahoma and No. 18 Baylor, in which she dominated offensively in both. The connection with her senior setter both on and off the court resulted in O’Neal leading the Longhorns with 13 kills against Oklahoma with a hitting percentage of .647. Against Baylor, O’Neal recorded 12 kills at a season-best .750 hitting percentage and also recorded a season-high eight blocks on the night. 

“We are really good friends, so we spend a lot of time together,” O’Neal said. “So that just makes it easy. I think it’s easier to have dialogue when you’re close to somebody, because you know it’s not going to be taken personally. … Just having those extra non-volleyball hours makes it easier to communicate on the court.” 

Even after two open heart surgeries, the first when she was 12 and the second as a sophomore at Texas, O’Neal is a factor in the Longhorns’ consistent success on the court and continues to be an inspiration as a whole to the Texas volleyball program.

Presented by the Collegiate Women Sports Awards, O’Neal was the winner of the 2021 Honda Inspiration Award. After her surgery in January 2020, O’Neal’s mitral valve leakage was repaired and she had a full and successful recovery. Even years after her surgery, she is still a representation of perseverance and strength. She had a simple answer for what keeps her motivated after everything.

“My love for volleyball,” O’Neal said. “I’ve put in a lot of years playing this sport, and playing here has always been a dream and a goal of mine, so I knew I didn’t want that to end no matter what. I was willing to do whatever I could to get back on the court.”  

As both an athlete and a person, O’Neal has impacted and has been positively changed by the Texas volleyball program.

“College athletics in general just really prepares you to be a better person whether it be through organization or managing all the difficult things that come with playing a college sport,” O’Neal said. “Our coaches do a good job at making sure that we continue to invest in ourselves off the court, whether that be different interests or just making sure that we know our worth is more than volleyball players.”