Texas trying to move on from title
AUSTIN, Texas -- It took Texas a good many years to again be the last team standing in college volleyball.
The challenge now is for the Longhorns to forget they were just that.
Even at the end of a week that produced a good deal of grumbling about gridiron affairs in the state capital, and even with patches of empty seats in the upper reaches of Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on a Saturday night, to stand on the field during a mid-September football game between Texas and Kansas State was to have the rest of the world temporarily obscured by a sea of burnt orange, cowboy boots, cowgirl dresses and Hook 'em Horns that rose into the Austin night. Looking up, the eyes of Texas well and truly looked back.
And on this night, perhaps buoyed by an early lead in the game against the Wildcats or perhaps by the reminder that the Longhorns can, in fact, still win national championships in something, the fans who nearly filled the stadium offered a warm greeting when the volleyball team was honored on the field between the first and second quarters.
Living in the present is never trickier than when nearly 100,000 people take time to remember the best day in your athletic life.
"You want to know what that feeling is," fifth-year senior Bailey Webster said of winning the national championship 10 months ago. "I think that when you finally reach the ultimate goal, which most people say when they get to college is to work to win the national championship, it's almost unreal. It's over. You were the winner at the end of the day. I think that it's a great feeling, and it's hard to sink in. It's like all your hard work paid off.
"I think you spend your whole [next] season trying to get back to that point where you're working hard and you're steady enough to have a chance to achieve that, to get that feeling again."
And so not much more than 16 hours after they stood on the football field, and while many of the fans in attendance at that game surely still struggled to shake off the effects of their evening revelry, Webster and her teammates warmed up before a game against former conference rival and perennial national power Nebraska.
Slapped on the back on a Saturday night for the championship they won. A target affixed in the same region on a Sunday afternoon. Welcome to life as national champions.
Moving on can be hard
It may not always be quite so stark as that turnaround, but such is the give and take that has gone on since January, when players returned to a populated campus for the first time since winning the program's second NCAA title and the first in the lifetimes of most students. Lose in the final four and you had a good season. Win it all and you are champions. Only one team spends a year in the present tense.
"It was kind of hard to get over that because even though we were ready to move forward, everybody else was still talking about the national championship," senior Hannah Allison said. "You have to balance still being excited about that with not thinking about it all the time."
Making it all the more challenging to convince people to turn the page was just how many characters remained the same. The Longhorns lost one player from a team that went 31-4 last season and dropped just three sets in six postseason matches, though Sha'Dare McNeal was a significant bit of attrition. They still had reigning Big 12 player of the year Haley Eckerman. They still had Webster, the All-American named most outstanding player in the NCAA tournament. They still had most of the faces smiling in the photos from the championship aftermath in Louisville last December.
That doesn't necessarily make it the same team.
Early in the offseason, Texas coach Jerritt Elliott called on a different sport to help set the stage for the new season. Teams in the NHL defend championships, he said. The Stanley Cup changes hands when a new team wins it all. It is different for college teams, even those with some measure of continuity. Whatever happens this season, no one will come take the trophy the Longhorns claimed last December. All they can do is compete along with everyone else for the one that will he handed out in Seattle.
Just in case that message needed emphasis, Texas opened the new season not with a ceremony and an overmatched opponent at home, but on the road in volleyball-mad Honolulu in front of more than 9,000 decidedly partisan University of Hawaii fans. Before the championship banner was unveiled back home in Gregory Gymnasium, before the recognition at the football game, Texas lost. It was the program's first opening defeat since 2007.
"We just weren't working on all cylinders; we weren't playing as a team," senior Sarah Palmer said. "When they were scoring on us and they had their high moments, we just couldn't get out of it."
It's a new season. Some differences are obvious. Freshmen Chloe Collins, Chiaka Ogbogu and Pilar Victoria weren't around last season. All are factors this season, a development which alone increases the team's depth and creates new lineup options and competition. But it's not just the new faces. Time moves quickly in college. Sure, it was just 10 months ago that Texas won the championship, but it was just over 36 months ago that Palmer was a freshman with a big bag on her back, a map in her hands and a confused look on her face, trying to navigate a campus of more than 50,000 students in the middle of one the largest cities in the country. Now she's crossing things off her Austin bucket list as time grows short before graduation in the spring. Evolution, in all its fits and starts, is accelerated in a college setting. That's as true on a volleyball court as it is in locating the food court.
Consider Molly McCage. The 6-foot-3 middle blocker wasn't troubled by the size of the school when she arrived last fall -- everything is bigger in Texas, she will remind you, including her high school graduating class of more than 800 -- but college volleyball was a sizable adjustment, even for a player rated as the nation's No. 1 recruit by some evaluators. She played quite a bit in the championship campaign, she even led the team in blocks in the final match against Oregon, but everything was an effort to keep up.
"It took me a while, honestly," McCage said. "It was hard for me because it was a different way of communicating. This team is very competitive and very focused. ... It was way different than any other team I've ever been on, in the fact that they held me to a very high standard I didn't think I was capable of."
Trying to put the parts together
The Longhorns beat the Huskers the day after they were honored during the football game, the first meeting between the teams since Nebraska left for the Big Ten. Texas dropped the first set and squandered an opportunity to clinch the victory in the fourth set, but it came up with the necessary points in the final set. A redshirt candidate until a week earlier, Ogbogu had a key block to help swing momentum down the stretch. On a rare pedestrian day for Eckerman, at least by her standards, McCage was terrific. Effective, too, was Amy Neal, now a starter as a sophomore but someone who played sparingly a season ago as another highly touted freshman.
Added to earlier victories against Penn State and Stanford at home and Illinois on the road, the win against Nebraska showed how good the new parts, old parts and improved parts can be. The loss against Hawaii and another at the hands of Arizona State showed the Longhorns are a work in progress, that more pieces can mean more opportunities for things to go awry. Which team are they?
"It depends on what match," Allison said. "We're really up and down. We'll have strands of points that are really good, and we'll have strands of points that are really bad. That's something you work on all season. We weren't a national championship team for the first three-fourths of the year last year. But we kept working and working and working and trying to make those strands of good volleyball longer and longer and longer."
That they weren't a national championship team for much of last season is true both literally and figuratively. Despite their insistence that the same is true now, it is only figuratively so these days. In the eyes of everyone else, they are a championship team. It's why fans jammed together on a Sunday morning and waited for the doors to open at Gregory Gymnasium in what would be a third consecutive sellout, a first in program history.
They are still forced to spend a lot of time talking about how little they talk about that championship.
"I didn't think it would be easier; I didn't realize that there was even more of a time commitment now," Elliott said, a point underscored as he sat in a campus coffee shop with two cellphones stacked one atop the other. "So my job has even become harder. I think I've had five or six days off since May. Everybody wants a little piece of your time."
It doesn't sound like a complaint, more a patient explanation from the former elementary school teacher. Everything changes for the last team standing.
"Right now, it's just finding that identity," McCage said. "We have it -- we see sparks of it."
Sparks of what they could be, flashes of what they were. All that's sure is it's a dilemma they would like to have again next season.