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Inside the magical national championship win by Texas volleyball

How a team of destiny used a dominating service game led by two players who almost went in other directions to repeat as champions.

Texas volleyball

“Magically, it just all came together.”

Sitting at the podium at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Sunday, Texas Longhorns head coach Jerritt Elliott used his opening statement to reflect on a season that started at 5-3 and ended with dominating wins over three No. 1 seeds, a stretch culminating with a sweep of the No. 1 Nebraska Cornhuskers in the national championship game.

“We had all the confidence in the world,” Texas star outside hitter Madisen Skinner told ESPN after the match. “I’ll say it until I die — this team was peaking right now and we just had so much trust and belief in one another. I mean our service pressure was insane. It gave us so many options in transition.”

Nebraska head coach John Cook knows a little about teams of destiny — he’s won four national championships with the Cornhuskers and finished as the runner up three more times before Sunday’s loss, along with another three appearances in the Final Four.

In 2017 against Penn State in the semifinals, the Nittany Lions had a match point, but two players collided and the Cornhuskers rallied for the win.

“You think you’re invincible. You think it’s destiny. ‘It’s ours.’ And I think Texas experienced that,” said Cook.

Texas sixth-year senior Asjia O’Neal certainly did during a decisive 11-0 run in the second set that featured 10 points on her serve, including four consecutive aces that left her with a confident smile on her face reflected in the stands by her famous father, former NBA standout Jermaine O’Neal, who stopped celebrating his daughter’s aces in lieu of the same knowing grin.

“Volleyball is a huge game of momentum and during that run, I just could totally feel the momentum completely shifted on our side and I just knew we were playing with so much confidence and joy and I just knew that we had the game in the bag,” said O’Neal.

“Obviously it’s a long match and I knew that they were gonna want to fight back, but I was just smiling because I was so happy with how we were feeling and you just feel it when you’re an athlete and you’re in a sport, you just feel it, and I felt that we were going to win the match.”

Nebraska managed to score three straight points after finally breaking O’Neal’s serve, but Texas closed out the set by winning seven of the final eight points and never looked back in notching 12 of the final 13 points in the third set with Skinner’s serve producing four straight points and O’Neal scoring the final five points, including an ace on match point as she successfully emulated the “iconic” serve by Keonilei Akana that closed out the 2022 title.

O’Neal admitted she couldn’t remember a previous service run like her 10 straight points in the second set, saying that she felt “weird” with her serving before the match, but her teammates picked her up.

“Just really goes back to our team culture and how everyone really uplifts one another and allows us to do kind of crazy things,” said O’Neal.

The serving by Texas disrupted everything Nebraska was trying to do on the court.

“They had a level of serving we haven’t seen all year and that really impacted us in our momentum and our confidence and then everything started going their way and they got all the momentum and we just couldn’t ever get it back,” said Cook.

The legendary Nebraska head coach started to say he’s never seen anything like it before correcting himself — he watched Texas do the same thing to Stanford and Wisconsin to reach the finals.

With 12 service aces, a championship record, the Longhorns were able to alternate between deep and short serves, all with movement, to keep the Cornhuskers off balance and out of system, targeting the outside hitters like Harper Murray, who had five return errors, and then finding the seams when Nebraska tried to change formations before the serve.

“I’ll give you a football analogy, since you like those — it’s the fourth quarter and they’re just running the ball. They’re gonna run and you can’t stop them. That’s what it feels like and they just go down the field and that’s what Texas did,” said Cook.

Helpless on the sidelines, Cook watched as his team lost the first four points of the match and fell into a downward spiral as the passers never gained a rhythm and lost their confidence, the setters never gained a rhythm and lost their confidence, and the hitters overcompensated by pressing and trying to hit the ball too hard.

Nebraska finished with 20 kills against 19 errors, hitting .013.

Texas won back-to-back national championships led by two players who nearly went in different directions — O’Neal thought about moving on after last season before changing her mind and Skinner famously didn’t want to transfer to Texas after leaving Kentucky.

“I reached out to her on a text message just saying, ‘Hey, I’m excited to talk to you.’ I could find the text, but she actually told me she’s not interested. She had a lot of respect for our program and was going to be looking elsewhere,” Elliott said recently.

“I begged her to get on a Zoom call and then I kept her on the Zoom call for an hour and a half and you just know. Sometimes when you have a relationship and you have the first conversation, it’s just the right fit. I felt super comfortable with her. She felt super comfortable with me.”

A latecomer to volleyball who started playing at 15, Skinner had already lost her love for the sport and her confidence when she departed Lexington after winning a national championship with the Wildcats.

On Sunday, she shouted out her “obsession” with Longhorn Nation through tears in a surreal post-game interview on the court.

“I’ve never been so emotional ever in my life,” said Skinner. “But just to have this season that we had and it being so rocky, but coming out on top, and just the confidence that we all had together was just something that I’ve never been a part of.”

Now an all-around player who learned how to pass and defend to play in all six rotations at Texas, Skinner earned the Most Outstanding Player nod in the NCAA Tournament days after she was snubbed as the National Player of the Year, a testament to the developmental ability of Elliott’s program and the culture he’s built on the Forty Acres.

Elliott called it a “dream season” and joked that he wished he could go out on top like O’Neal.

“We were just able to play free — we love each other and support one another and throughout the whole year, it was just so fun,” said O’Neal. “This is probably the most joyous season I’ve ever had in my life. It was definitely challenging at times, but just today as an example, everyone played free, everyone had confidence in one another, and we were able to go out and take down some really incredible teams.”