NCAA Volleyball National Championship Preview: Q+A With Burnt Orange Nation

Dominic Vieira

Get to know the one team standing in the way of Oregon's second national title of the fall cycle with Peter Bean of Burnt Orange Nation!

To see my answers to Peter Bean's questions, including the phrase "Thanks for not recruiting Lamichael James, by the way," click HERE.

Will Rubin (Addicted to Quack): Texas has played for a national title recently, but also plays at what's certainly a football school. How is the fan support at matches, especially with a team contending for a national title?

Peter Bean (Burnt Orange Nation): Fan support of the volleyball team comfortably outstrips that of the men's basketball team. Admittedly, that's not saying much, but Texas volleyball has a rabid following of boisterous and loyal supporters who pack Gregory Gymnasium for every home match, in what is in the opinion of many UT fans the best home game experience on the UT campus. And yes, that includes football.

WR: What were the expectations for this year?

PB: Well, when you win the outright Big 12 title four out of the past five years and make the NCAA Tournament Final Four in three out of the most recent four, it's hard not to view anything less than exactly that - a Big 12 title and return to the Final Four - as a disappointment. Under head coach Jerritt Elliott, expectations for the volleyball team have risen to incredibly high levels for the simple reason that he and the team just keep delivering exceptional seasons, year in and out.

Now, that's not to say it was just program loyalists with Texas-sized expectations for this team; the Longhorns were ranked No. 2 in the national polls heading into the 2012 season, and after slipping in the rankings following a trio of early September losses to Big Ten teams (Penn State, Minnesota, Illinois), Texas ripped off 17 consecutive wins before stumbling in the regular season finale at Iowa State. And now they've won four straight to reach their second NCAA Championship Game in four years.

WR: Looking at this year's team, who are the players that Oregon fans should pay the most attention to?

PB: Sophomore outside hitter Haley Eckerman became the fourth straight Texas player to win Big 12 Player of the Year honors, finishing the season with 41 aces, a ridiculous 4.4 kills per set average, 2.0 digs per set, and 561.5 total points. She didn't have her best match against Michigan on Thursday night (meaning she was "merely" very good - 16 kills, 8 digs - instead of otherworldly), but Texas is not a one-player team, and fellow First Team All Big 12 honorees Bailey Webster (18 kills), Khat Bell (hit .450 on 11 kills and 7 blocks), and Sha'Dare McNeal (hit .524 on 13 kills, 12 digs, and 4 blocks) all played typically outstanding volleyball, while Longhorns' libero Sarah Palmer registered a career-high 31 digs and setter Hannah Allison was phenomenal in tallying 53 assists, 11 digs, and a career-best 6 blocks. It was just an outstanding team effort, on a night when Eckerman wasn't dominating and the team fell behind 2 sets to 1.

WR: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Texas team this season?

PB: When you can combine elite hitting (#1 in the nation in hitting percentage, at .322) and blocking (#8 nationally with 2.99 blocks per set), you're going to win a lot of matches unless you're just terrible taking serve. You have to pick nits to find faults with either of these two teams in the Championship Game, but this Texas team tends to be a little bit streaky - boom or bust - and though they pulled it together in time to turn things around against Michigan, that's not something you want to have to be trying to do in an NCAA Championship Game, when the pressure and intensity will be magnified even further. These ladies seem to win 3-0 or 3-2. As exciting as a five-set final would be, I'd rather they just won it as quickly as possible. We've been too close, too many times...

WR: Which team did you want to face after beating Michigan?

PB: That's a great question. The competitor in me of course wanted to boldly insist that it would only be proper - and indeed all the better - to win that elusive title by knocking off Penn State. But look, Texas fans are all too aware that the Nittany Lions have been almost singularly responsible for our falling short of the title and the lone team that's bettered us over the last five year, knocking us off at the end seemingly every single year. And they did it to us again in the regular season this season, whomping us 3-0 in State College.

The fact of the matter is that it's hard not to cede a psychological edge when a team gets the better of you like Penn State has Texas in recent years, and the allure of principled bravery notwithstanding, I think most Texas fans would at least privately admit to being relieved that we don't have to face them for the title.

WR: How is the student support at home volleyball matches, and is there anything planned on campus for the match?

PB: I'm not entirely sure what percentage of the fan support is comprised of students, but you won't find a more boisterous or consistently supportive volleyball fan base in the country. Longhorns fans love the Gregory Gazelles - the name I came up with for the team five or six years ago - packing the stands to capacity to cheer on each "POINT TEXAS!"

There may well be something planned for on campus, although I'm not aware of what it is, and didn't see anything obviously advertised on a quick scan of the team's home page. I'll be in the game thread at BON, hoping that this is the year the Gazelles finally break through for the title.

Congrats on an amazing season, enjoy the match on Saturday night, and Hook ‘Em!

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