It is a beautiful thing when the two of the best teams in any sport, get the chance to duke it out, especially when the results can have a significant impact on which team wins a conference championship.
That scenario will be evident in the Frank Erwin Center Thursday and Friday night as the Texas volleyball team (10-0), which holds the top spot in the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) poll, team plays host to No. 3 Baylor (11-1) for two matches. Both matches can be seen on the Longhorn Network.
"It should be a really good test for our program," Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott said in his weekly meeting with reporters, "and obviously two critical matches."
That they will be. Baylor and Texas have run away with the conference lead, with both teams having played a conference-only slate. However, it is worth noting that Texas has not played a match in 11 days, after its matches against TCU that were scheduled for this past weekend were cancelled due to Covid-19. Elliot said he believes that the week off allowed his squad to place more focus on these next two matches.
"We're excited to get back to competing again," Elliott said. "We had a week off that interrupted our schedule, but it was a good opportunity for our team to get some rest and working back up in terms of workload to prepare for this week."
With the NCAA Tournament not set to be held until April, these next two matches will provide Texas with a final four-like atmosphere, something the team will need to get used to if this can become a national championship season for the Longhorns.
"This fall it's called the 'fall final four,'" said Elliott with a chuckle. "It's great. It's exciting for our players, it is a good test to see where our program is right now, and I know that Baylor and our program are excited to compete."
These two programs go way back in the world of college volleyball, each sharing points on the mountaintop as conference champions and going deep into the NCAA Tournament. The Longhorns and Bears split two matches last season, but Baylor simply had more firepower and went on to win the Big 12 title and reach the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament. The Horns won the most recent of their three NCAA titles in 2012. Before being upset by Louisville last year, Texas made it to the NCAA regional finals 13 straight seasons, from 2006-18.
"I think one of the positives of our program was that we've been in this position for years," Elliott said of the high caliber of play expected in these two contests. "Some programs, when they get to No. 1 or No. 2, it sends them in a different emotional category. I think our players don't really buy into the No. 1 or No. 2 ranking. It's nice to have that accolade, but they're more focused on winning the Big 12."
Playing at home, in front of a sellout crowd of 1,500 fans, should help give Texas a home-court advantage. But don't be surprised if Baylor brings quite a few fans of its own. The passion for volleyball runs deep at both of these schools.
Fans aren't the only thing Baylor will bring to Austin. The Lady Bears also have several newcomers, changing the look of the team from last season to this season. Setter Callie Williams, a transfer from Tennessee, opposite AJ Koele, from Mississippi State, and Lauren Harrison, who transferred from North Carolina, all will suit up for Baylor for the first time against Texas, after all three sat out last year due to transfer rules. The Lady Bears also have six freshmen on their roster, meaning there is a good blend of experience and young talent on Baylor's roster. But when it comes to the style of play, nothing has changed, according to Elliott.
"They're pretty similar in terms of what they're doing," said Elliott. "[The front three] are a lot more pin-heavy then they were last year. All three have the ability to score and obviously, with the speed of their offense, it can cause a lot of problems [for the Longhorns] and get their offense really rolling. It will be a good test for our servers and for our defense."
Elliott said he has been impressed by his team's preparation for this week's matches, both in practices and in the first 10 matches of the season.
"I've been very surprised with the level of focus our team has had," said Elliot Tuesday. "They've been dialed in every match. They've respected themselves, their preparation. So I know the intensity will be there. They want to take care of business and test Baylor."