After Recent Near-Misses, Texas Volleyball Is Poised to Win it All Again

June 27, 2019, was the day the Big 12 released its annual preseason volleyball coaches poll. For the ninth consecutive year, UT coach Jerritt Elliott’s peers picked the Longhorns to win the conference almost unanimously. The only holdout was Elliott. (You can’t vote for your own team.)

The expectations for Texas volleyball’s 2019 season are high, and for a few reasons: Texas has won the conference title 10 out of the last 12 years, and those outliers were second-place finishes. The Longhorns have dropped just seven conference games since 2011 and posted perfect 16-0 records in both 2013 and 2017. And, pushing the past aside for a moment, it’s the final season for one of the best volleyball players in the country: senior outside hitter Micaya White.

The 6-foot-1-inch senior could have played anywhere she wanted coming out of Centennial High School in Frisco, Texas, in 2015. But on a recruiting visit to the Forty Acres, she was happily surprised by the genial atmosphere. “When you go on a visit, girls are like … ‘Hi,’ all awkward,’” White explains. At UT, she says, “They were like, ‘Hey, girl!’ It was like I’d known them my whole life.”

Three weeks later, White called Elliott to say she’d made up her mind, despite the coach’s pleas for her to take more time. Elliott didn’t want her to feel pressured to pick Texas, and, in fact, he hadn’t even offered a scholarship yet for that very reason. But White was undeterred, and for the majority of her high school career, she was dead set on the Forty Acres. Before she got to campus, though, she suffered a stress fracture in her tibia and was forced to redshirt her freshman season.

Having waited three long years to graduate high school and get to UT was tough enough; extending that another year was excruciating. But White says she took her time off as a blessing, and a way to learn more about her game and herself while she watched from the bench.

Another reason for those preseason high hopes: Asjia O’Neal, a redshirt freshman, finally joins the team. She had a hard time waiting to get back on the court during her first year on the Forty Acres, too. It was fun to watch her teammates battle it out at Gregory Gym and on the road, but she missed out on the camaraderie that comes with actually playing in games. It’s doubly hard to be on the bench when carrying the weight of that last name. O’Neal is the daughter of six-time NBA All-Star Jermaine O’Neal. What’s more: O’Neal sat out her senior season at Southlake Carroll in order to, ostensibly, avoid injury before enrolling at UT.

But despite never having been in the trenches with the teammates she calls “her sisters,” the 6-foot-3-inch middle blocker isn’t worried about shaking off the rust.

“Right off the bat in spring games I felt really comfortable and it was fluid and I was moving well,” O’Neal says. “It’s going to be a quick jump-start.”

O’Neal claims to be quiet by nature, but says she was quickly pulled out of her shell by the upperclassmen upon arriving in 2018. “I came in and was nervous. I thought, What if I don’t get along well?” she says. “Right off the bat everyone made me and the other freshmen feel comfortable. We’re all extremely close.”

Junior setter Ashley Shook says that the team is so close, and spends so much time together, that sometimes they need a break from each other, like real siblings.

“But you need that on a team,” she says. “We’re close enough to be able to hold each other accountable without taking it personally.”

Even the players’ parents are part of the family. When Elliott and I meet in July, we ride an elevator down to the basement of Bellmont Hall, where the team has practiced since a renovation in 2015. Logan Eggleston, a sophomore outside hitter, and the 2018 Big 12 Freshman of the Year, gets on with us at the first floor. She says hello to her coach, and mentions that she is on the phone with her mother. Elliott motions to Eggleston before grabbing the phone out of her hand, and launches into a conversation with his player’s mom.

After Eggleston departs, Elliott turns to me and says, simply, “One of the most solid kids we’ve ever had.”

Shook is excited for this year, primarily based on the effort they’ve put in during the offseason, despite not having any official practices yet.

“It’s going to be a really special season,” she says. “We’ve been putting in a lot of work that a lot of people don’t get to see. It’s going to all add up.”

O’Neal agrees with Shook. “We’re already so close—that’s not an issue. Skill-set is not an issue,” she tells me. “As long as we come together and put in the work, we have a really good shot of going all the way.”

Elliott, meanwhile, says he doesn’t like to talk about national championships with his team. That could be coach-speak, but the reality is, with a team that gets this close on an annual basis, there’s really no need to bring it up. The Longhorns are confronted with the reality every season.

On the evening of Dec. 15, 2012, Elliott admitted to an ESPN reporter that he had cried earlier that day, before his Longhorns had taken down the Oregon Ducks in the NCAA title matchup. Regardless, he wasn’t crying now, as the Longhorns took home their first national championship in volleyball in more than two decades. It hadn’t yet sunk in for him that after more than a decade as head coach of Texas volleyball, he had finally led a team to a national title. He hugged his children. He smiled. He thanked his team and the players, the coaches, and the alumni who built the program in 1974, a foundation that formed the basis for this victory, the most important moment in his long coaching career.

What no one knew—what no one could possibly know—is that Elliott almost wasn’t there to see the Longhorns win it all.

One year and five days prior, Elliott sat alone in the training room inside the Alamodome in San Antonio. His team was the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, freshly knocked off by No. 9 UCLA following a tough battle against Kentucky the previous night. The gym had been dead, a far cry from the usual raucousness of his home turf at Gregory Gym.

Then-Texas Women’s Athletics Director Chris Plonsky approached him and asked him what he was thinking. Elliott told her he didn’t think he should tell her what was on his mind, but she insisted.  Elliott said he wanted to quit.

“I’m just miserable,” he told her. “This profession is just terrible.” He stood up and walked away to meet with his team.

Elliott had every reason to feel burned out. Two years earlier, at the 2009 tournament, his team led Penn State 2-0 in the national championship match before the Nittany Lions mounted an unlikely comeback to take the title, 3-2. The following season, Penn State demolished Texas in the Final Four. His teams had won the Big 12 in four out of the five previous seasons dating to 2011, and they had made the Regional Final or Final Four every year since then. Texas had not won a national championship in volleyball since the twilight of the Reagan administration. Elliott had an albatross squeezing his carotid artery shut.

Still, Elliott couldn’t walk away after 2011. Following an emotional meeting with then-star player Bailey Webster and company, he sought out Plonsky. “I want my job,” he told her. “I want my job.” When you regularly turn in top-three recruiting classes and can pencil your team into the later rounds of the NCAA tournament every season, you don’t have to beg.

But Elliott had to refocus. He admitted to himself that the expectations—some largely self-imposed—had taken a bit of the joy out of winning; it was commonplace. And thus losing even one or two early-season matches became a primal fear; it affected seeding for the end-of-season tournament, one he had never won.

“I’ve always liked the kids. That’s what I’m here for—to see them become strong women,” he reflects. “From that point on I had more appreciation for coaching again, I think. I still get sick every year after the season. It takes me a while to recover and it’s very unhealthy.”

In his office this July, Elliott points at a banner that covers the wall behind his desk. Made of canvas, it is a team portrait of ecstatic women, bearing the words: “2012 NCAA Champions.”

“Oh my gosh, this is getting old,” he says. “I’ve got to replace this one.”

Elliott grew up playing every sport imaginable during his childhood in Pacific Palisades, a California beach neighborhood just north of Santa Monica: baseball, basketball, skiing, soccer. Today, he warns of the limitations of specializing in just one sport, which, of course, many of his players wind up doing.

In high school, the volleyball coach asked him to come to a tryout, but he had never played before, so he skipped out. The next day, the coach insisted he come to the next one, and Elliott complied. He made varsity by the end of the year, and fell in love with the sport. He was teammates with eventual U.S. Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist Kent Steffes, and their Palisades High team went 36-0 in Elliott’s senior season. It was the closeness of the players, who all loved the game and each other, that ensnared him in the sport.

“If we weren’t in the gym,” he says, “we were down at the beach playing 24/7.”

After high school, Elliott played at Pepperdine University, a private college 12 miles up the coast. He transferred to the University of Hawaii for his junior season in 1989, but he had injured his shoulder that season, and when he came home for the summer, the coach at Palisades High asked him to help out during the offseason. He graduated from Cal State Northridge in 1991, with a degree in kinesiology, and set out to do what he really wanted to do: teach and  coach volleyball. That same year, he was hired at his alma mater as head coach at Palisades High, where he led the girls’ team to the city championship in his first season. The parents at Palisades asked him to form a club team, so he was teaching elementary school during the day, coaching the high school team, and doing the same for the club team until 10 p.m most days. Eventually, he caught on as a volunteer at Cal State Northridge, his other alma mater.

In 1994, the volleyball Final Four was held at the Frank Erwin Center and Elliott came down to speak with Texas head coach Mick Haley about possibly becoming a volunteer assistant.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, this place is just the best,’” he says. “This was my dream job.”

That same year, he was hired by USC as a volunteer. When an assistant coaching job came open at Missouri, and Elliott flew to Columbia to interview. When he landed, his head coach at USC called and said, “Do the interview, but don’t take the job.” When he got back to California, he was offered the job as second assistant.

In 1999, Elliott was working as first assistant at USC. He interviewed for the head coaching job, but it was given to Haley, the former Texas coach who had won the program’s lone national championship, in 1988. But because Haley had left Texas to coach the Olympic team, and was under contract through the 2000 Games, Elliott was named interim head coach. He was just 30 years old, but turned in back-to-back No. 1 recruiting classes in 2000 and 2001.

That second year, his eye still on Austin, Elliott scheduled his Trojans to play the Longhorns at Gregory Gym.

“Nobody knows this. I knew they were struggling a little but, so I wanted my face and my program for them to see,” Elliott says. “We played really, really well. And I got an interview.”

The first night he was in Austin, he called his best friend, who told him not to get his hopes up. After all, Elliott was still young, probably too young to get this high-caliber position. He told his friend he knew the job was his: “They haven’t asked me one question. I’ve been on a recruiting visit the whole time.” Elliott’s plot worked. He’s heading into his 20th year on the Forty Acres, the longest tenure of any coach in program history.

If 2011—and 2012, for that matter—felt degrading, 2015 and 2016 were no stroll through the bluebonnets.

In 2015, Texas sliced through the conference, only to get swept by Nebraska in the final. The following season, Texas finished second in the Big 12, but got revenge on the Cornhuskers by returning the gesture, knocking Nebraska out of the tournament in the Final Four. Unfortunately, Texas met one of the other blue-bloods in the final, Stanford, who vanquished the Longhorns with relative ease. Despite winning the national championship in 2012, and setting aside that making the final in the NCAA tournament twice consecutively is an untouchable goal for almost every other school in the country, Elliott still feels the pressure to win every match.

“The more you win, the more miserable coaching becomes,” he says, “because you’re expected to win those games and there’s not a whole lot of joy from it.”

Two years ago, Elliott ran into Geno Auriemma in an airport, just after his Connecticut women’s basketball team was bounced out of the NCAA Tournament in the Final Four. Auriemma has won 11 national championships with UConn, including four straight earlier this decade. For one stretch in the same decade, his team lost a total of three games in five seasons.

“All my fans think I’m losing it. They think I’m not a good coach anymore because I’ve been undefeated, but I lost in the Final Four the last two years,” Auriemma told Elliott.

If Auriemma can’t get no satisfaction, no one can. But Elliott is at least aware that he brings a lot of the pressure on himself. To counteract this internalized conflict, he opened up the floor to comments from his team.

“I want to know everything about me—what I did well, what I didn’t do well,” Elliott says. “I open myself and my staff up to being criticized if need be.”

Though Elliott says since he began this practice in the last decade or so—he even has what he calls his “Bible,” a thick, season-specific notebook of feedback and notes on goals, team chemistry, and other meditations—the need to prompt criticism has diminished, as the process has become normalized within the program.

“We just ask them a bunch of questions, like, ‘How is our coaching? How are our film reviews? How are our practice sessions? How do we travel? How are our academic people? How do you like the interactions with your coaches?’” he says.

All three of Elliott’s players I ask—Shook, O’Neal, and White—have a similar refrain about his style of criticism. Mainly, that he doesn’t employ a one-size-fits-all form of coaching. Perhaps because he reads the criticism each year about his style, and takes the time to get to know the idiosyncrasies and of his players, they say he uses different approaches with each player.

“It depends on the player—especially for the freshmen,” O’Neal says. “Some people he got on and then pulled back. It’s what he thinks you need.” She mentions that the coaches ask in meetings about how each player needs to be coached. It’s a radical idea—imagine Nick Saban or Bob Knight trying this out—but it seems to work.

“Not everyone can be coached the exact same way,” Shook says. “I don’t need a whole lot of feedback all the time. He does a good job knowing when to give feedback and when you can figure it out on your own.”

White told me that when she got to Texas as a freshman, she was afraid of Elliott, not because of his demeanor, but because of nerves. Now, she drops by his office whenever she needs to talk to him, and the two get coffee together.

“He’s a hard coach … but not a hard coach—he gets on you when he needs to,” White says. “He could yell at you in practice for doing something wrong, and then he’ll pull you aside and say, ‘Hey, you know why I yelled at you.’”

All three players have something personal to prove this season. For the freshman O’Neal, it’s creating her own legacy outside of her being an NBA player’s daughter. For Shook, it’s shaking off a sophomore slump after a stellar freshman season in 2017. For White, it’s taking advantage of her final opportunity to get over the hump and bring home a national championship.

Sitting on a bench below a wall of Texas volleyball accolades—Final Four appearances, national titles—spelled out in gold-colored letters, she addresses her past, and her future, which hopefully ends in an addition to that very wall.

“My mindset is to not take this opportunity for granted,” White says. “I go into every game, and I tell my teammates, ‘We fight for each other.’”

Photographs, from top, by Matt Wright-Steel (2); courtesy Texas Athletics (2).

 
 
 

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