The Texas Volleyball team is relishing the tall task of reclaiming a national championship this season. (Photo courtesy texassports.com)
It’s only a matter of time.
With the countless repetitions, syncing up rhythms and spending the time to understand each other’s tendencies, patterns and behaviors, the Texas volleyball team has plans to win it all this season. The Longhorns aren’t waiting around for their time to come. Instead, they’re working relentlessly to rebound from a — for their standards — disappointing season in 2017, which ended with a loss to Stanford in the Regional Finals.
So far, so great in 2018.
“We did great things last year, but the Stanford game was one step back, a wake-up call because, ‘Oh yeah, Texas makes it to Final Four every year,’” senior outside hitter Micaya White said. “We need to pick it up. Nothing will ever get handed to you, especially now because everyone is so good.
“We all have this extra drive,” she continued. “This is our team. We didn’t accomplish the goal last year. So it’s time to reset and go full speed ahead.”
As the team went from 17 players to 10 in the spring following the fall campaign, it enabled the Longhorns to look deeper and bond on another level. Now that they're back at full strength with an influx of phenomenal freshman, plus a last-minute addition in Katarina Luketic from Croatia, Texas is up for tall tasks all season.
“It made the people that are here a lot closer — we focused on each other more and became more cohesive like one unit, a family,” junior setter Ashley Shook said. “We continue to push each other and there has been a lot of growth within our team ... It was wild going from 17 to 10, but we had enough players to have competitive practices.”
GETTING IN THE GROOVE
Shook and her fellow Longhorns worked on timing and tempo. The now-veteran setter is focused on absorbing exactly how each of her teammates likes the ball passed to them. Beyond that, she's honed in on their personalities and how everyone vibes on the court.
“We tried [a different tempo] when we first got here [last August], but I didn’t have the time or connection to do that with the hitters because I got here just two weeks before the season started,” Shook said. “We wanted better results, more than me just trying to set a fastball everywhere. I’ve grown a lot with this team. I’ve gotten a lot closer to them, I know what they like and know them better on and off the court.”
Texas traveled to Europe this summer to compete against several high-caliber national teams, including the Italian squad. The time spent across seas only brought the team closer together — especially for players like Shook.
“One-Hundred percent,” White said about the team filling in its missing pieces. “Ashley was the last little piece, and we only got to hang out with her a week before two-a-days started last year. It wasn’t until midseason we figured that out. With the team already together and the incoming freshmen coming in earlier again this year, it will help out a lot.”
This year the Longhorn freshmen got to campus and into the flow of collegiate play earlier than usual thanks to timing. Nationals used to end in July but were recently moved up to the spring so more athletes could join their teams during the first summer sessions on campus. This means the new players can begin the ever-crucial integration with plenty of time before the fall season begins.
“It has helped, not just our team but a lot of teams to start building that bond early,” White said. “Coming in after high school and jumping into a team is already challenging.”
Getting the timing down with each player and moving as a cohesive unit on the hardwood was the main focus during workouts this past offseason.
“One of our main goals is to know we’re still doing all this to win a National Championship in December,” Shook said. “We’re going through our processes every day and continue to challenge each other, push each other out of our comfort zones, because that’s where growth comes from.”
The team is off to a 2-0 start with wins over No. 4 Florida and No. 18 Oregon already under their belt.
That hasn't changed the team in the slightest.
“Something [head coach] Jerritt Elliott says is to trust the process and go through your routines,” Shook explained. “That will build up to continuously improve, so in a National Championship game, you’ve worked on your routines and you trust the process."
Trusting the process for Shook and the Horns means believing in what you build every day and the structure behind making it all sturdy, so it stays standing when it seems like everything is collapsing.
“That’s how we stay in the moment,” she added. “The main thing is in pressure situations in games, you can fall back on your training and know you’ve been working every day for this. We need to believe in ourselves.”
SEEING SIMILARITIES FROM FAMILY
After last season, Shook reflected on the entire season as well as the Stanford loss with her father, Jason, who golfed professionally in the 90s. While visiting her family back in Illinois, they discussed the similar mentalities of the two games and the ability to absorb information quickly, process it, and move on.
“When I saw my father, he had went to play a round with a friend and said he was sucking for the first nine, 10 holes,” Shook said. “He asked, ‘Why am I thinking so much?’ — I get my overthinking from him for sure — and he said, ‘I just need to go back.’
“I know how to set a ball and I know how to hit a ball,” she continued. “If a get a bad set, I hit a bad shot, I need to move on and continue forward. You have to be in the present moment all the time. In golf you’re alone, and in volleyball it’s the same — you’re a team but every touch is by one person and it’s how you control the ball. It’s on you if something goes wrong, so you have to move on and get the next one.”
The Longhorns continued to accomplish things most programs dream of last year, with its 10th Big 12 title, 32nd straight 25-plus win season and their 34th NCAA Tournament appearance. Looking for more this year, the team embarked on a journey to play abroad in that effort to expand their game and horizons to new heights.
“Being able to watch and learn from other teams is great, and traveling and being with each other only makes us more closer,” White said. “I’m (was so) excited. I had been looking forward to this the whole semester."
Shook, who has traveled and played in the Dominican Republic and Japan before, added that the extra time to acclimate so far away from home helps hone relationships the team has built up all offseason.
“Foreign volleyball is definitely different with their technique,” Shook said. “(They) put us in uncomfortable positions with different rules and a different ball. It challenged us.”
Starting off 2-0 is just that, a great start. Now Texas travels again to play in Madison, Wisc. this weekend. First off the Longhorns will face No. 8 Wisconsin at 7 p.m. Saturday. Then, the team turns around and takes on High Point (Madison, Wisc.) Sunday at 1 p.m.
“I want people to know that we get after it, no matter who comes, who goes, whoever is playing on that court, that team, they’re going after every ball and trying their hardest,” White said. “Sometimes you put on that Texas jersey and you think you’re supposed to win because people before us left this long great history. I always want people to know that we’re the toughest team, and we’re the hardest working team, no matter who we play, No. 1 seed or No. 64, we’re giving it 100 percent.”