When Texas Longhorns head coach Jerritt Elliott took over the historic volleyball program on the Forty Acres, the Longhorns were coming off a 10-18 season. The Nebraska Cornhuskers had just won their second national championship and served as the sport’s gold standard before going on to win three more titles and continue to pace college volleyball in overall wins and weeks ranked No. 1.
On Sunday, the Longhorns and Cornhuskers will face off for a national championship in Tampa at Amalie Arena as Elliott’s team tries to win back-to-back titles in its seventh appearance in the NCAA Tournament final in the last 15 years, the most in the country over that stretch.
“It’s an iconic matchup,” said Elliott after the Final Four win over Wisconsin, comparing the Texas-Nebraska rivalry to the Lakers-Celtics.
The title game is the seventh postseason matchup between Texas and Nebraska since 2009 and the third overall in a National Championship match with the Cornhuskers taking the title home to Lincoln in 1995 and 2015. The last matchup was an upset win by Nebraska in the Austin Regional final two years ago. Since then, the Longhorns have won 11 consecutive matches in the NCAA Tournament.
For Elliott, It took the Texas head coach nine years into his tenure on the Forty Acres to reach the championship game and fully shape the Texas program in Nebraska’s mold.
“I got my lunch handed to me a lot of times and I just remember our first victories when we finally got to the Final Fours and national championships. So it’s been a process to build this program because they were the one that was in the lead, they were the one that everyone was trying to model off of and I’m super proud of where we’ve come. I’m glad that they’re still a premier team because we need that,” said Elliott.
For this Texas team, it’s been something of a role reversal this season with sophomore libero Emma Halter terming the Longhorns underdogs thanks to a No. 2 seed in this NCAA Tournament that forced Texas on the road in the regionals against No. 2 Stanford before facing No. 3 Wisconsin.
“I kind of think we like that mentality,” said Halter.
It’s a mentality forged through some adversity this season as injuries and illnesses disrupted the team’s training sessions and kept the Longhorns from gaining any rhythm. But the adversity also forged a toughness in Texas that Elliott calls the group’s superpower and helped overcome a poor second-set loss in the four-set win over an imposing Wisconsin team.
Elliott game plan was to try to isolate and pressure Big Ten Player of the Year Sarah Franklin, the star Badgers outside hitter, to wear her down and keep Wisconsin off the net. Eleven service aces by Texas helped accomplish that goal as Franklin had three reception errors and only hit .163, well before her season average of .246.
Texas star outside hitter Madisen Skinner recorded a career-high six aces in the game, including three during a crucial stretch of 10 points scored in the third set that opened up the match for the Longhorns. By serving into the zones called by Elliott and changing her service depth while focusing on pace, Skinner was able to keep the Badgers off balance in the match’s decisive moments.
The scouting report provided to Halter by associate head coach Erik Sullivan helped the Texas libero record a game-high 19 digs backed by the knowledge that Wisconsin liked to hit angled shots or try to find the deep quarter off the block.
Texas associate head coach David Hunt, the team’s offensive coordinator, had a strategy for defeating the elite blocking ability of the Badgers, tasking setter Ella Swindle with short sets to isolate Wisconsin defenders one on one by running the middle and keeping the Badgers from getting in front of the swings by the Longhorns. The plan worked, as the Horns hit .254 with a plus-15 advantage in kills and Swindle recorded 46 assists.
Nebraska presents an even more formidable challenge — the Cornhuskers won 27 matches in a row to begin the season and lead the nation in defense with opponents hitting only .135, led by middle blocker Bekka Allick, the only player in the NCAA Tournament to reach double digits in blocks in two separate games, while libero Lexi Rodriguez was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Outside hitter Merritt Beason, a Florida transfer, is only the sixth Husker to total 450 kills in a season and the fourth Nebraska player since 2001 to reach 400-200-100 plateau in kills-digs-blocks, a testament to her all-around game. With a .278 hitting percentage this season, the Cornhuskers rank 18th in that category, bolstered by Big Ten Freshman of the Year Harper Murray, Beason’s complement on the outside. The Nebraska attack is set up by Bergen Reilly, the Big Ten Setter of the Year.
If there’s a demonstrable gap between the two volleyball powers, it’s in age and experience — where Texas boasts an average age of 22 on its roster, Nebraska is only 18 with no true seniors on the roster and four freshmen in the starting lineup. So far, that youth hasn’t hurt the Huskers, but the Longhorns have been through the pressure cooker of a national championship game, including Skinner winning one with Kentucky in addition to the title she helped secure for Texas a year ago.
The match starts at 2 p.m. Central on Sunday with ABC providing the coverage.