Longhorns star dancing a Texas two-step
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Haley Eckerman admired the play of former Nebraska star Jordan Larson so much, she decided to wear Larson's jersey number, 10, while she was still in high school.
Eckerman was recruited by Nebraska, and strongly considered that school. She's from Waterloo, Iowa, about a five-hour drive from Lincoln, Neb.
Yet when she and her mom, Julia, were returning from a much longer trip -- to Austin, Texas -- on Eckerman's last recruiting visit there, she realized her heart had actually been claimed by the Longhorns.
"I was like, 'Mom, I'm sorry,' " Eckerman remembered. "It's going to be Texas."
Eckerman liked both programs, but something just clicked more for her in Austin. Now, the sophomore outside hitter -- who was named an AVCA All-American this week -- will try to help the Longhorns win their first NCAA women's volleyball title since before she was born.
Texas took the championship in 1988. The Longhorns will play for it again at 7 p.m. Eastern time Saturday (ESPN2) against Oregon at the KFC Yum! Center. And Eckerman, who was Big 12 Player of the Year this season, will have a little guy who is one of her biggest fans here at the championship match.
Her 2½-year-old son, Cayden, is coming to Louisville with Julia to watch the final.
"He gets involved in the game," Eckerman said. "He knows, 'There's mommy!' and he likes the cheers. He catches on to them really fast. He's trying to work on his 'Hook 'em, Horns' sign, but it's not there yet."
However, Eckerman said she actually may not be the one whom her son watches the most at volleyball matches.
"He loves Bevo," Eckerman said of the Longhorns' mascot. "That's his favorite. He always has to find Bevo."
Obviously, Eckerman had to make some grown-up decisions when she was still in high school and realized she was going to have a baby. Cayden was born at the end of her junior year, before she had committed to a college. She was recruited by all the top programs in the country. Once she decided on Texas, she knew it would be a balancing act that would require a lot of help from her family.
Last season, when Eckerman was national freshman of the year, Cayden stayed in Waterloo with her mother. But the family, including Eckerman's younger sister, has relocated to Austin this season.
"It's been so much easier now to have them there," Eckerman said. "It's all been challenging, of course, but it's gotten better. And once the season is over, I have even more time to be with him."
Eckerman, a 6-foot-3 power player, has led Texas in kills this season with 492. She's third on the team in digs, with 229. What coach Jerritt Elliott said he is most pleased with in Eckerman's second season is her improvement as an all-around player.
"She's got a great serve, but now she's becoming more of a six-rotation player for us," Elliott said. "It's a fine balance in regard to when we use her and when we don't out of the back court.
"It takes time to develop ... to become a passer and learn the skills. She's making good strides, and she's been committed to it. She's gotten in great shape and has a great mentality -- just kind of even-keel with the way that she plays."
Eckerman had 16 kills in Texas' five-set semifinal win against Michigan on Thursday. That put the Longhorns into the final match of the season. And on the eve of that championship battle, Eckerman reflected on the progress Texas has made since the NCAA tournament last year.
The Longhorns lost to eventual champion UCLA in the 2011 regional finals. Then this season, early in September, they went through a stretch where they lost three of four matches.
Those losses were to Penn State, Minnesota and Illinois. After falling to the Illini, the Longhorns decided to scrap the 6-2 system (which uses two setters subbing in and out), and instead go with one setter, Hannah Allison. Things just came together. Texas lost only once more, in the regular-season finale at Iowa State, after the Longhorns already had clinched the Big 12 title.
Now, Eckerman and Texas are one step away from being national champions. This is what Eckerman came to the Lone Star State to get the chance to do.
"It just shows that everything we've done has paid off," Eckerman said. "We had some rocky moments in the beginning of the season. A lot of teams do. But we learned how to become better."