On Saturday December 17, 2022, the Texas Longhorns Women’s Volleyball team stood in the center of the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska, underneath a blast of burnt orange and white confetti, after capturing their fourth National Championship and first since 2012. Led by a team of upperclassmen, including AVCA Player of the Year Logan Eggleston, a senior, Big-12 Libero of the Year Zoe Fleck, a grad student, and first team All-American Asjia O’Neal, the Longhorns won the championship by sweeping Louisville. Both Eggleston and Fleck graduated, while O’Neal still had one year of eligibility remaining, and as was to be expected, the team faced much speculation over whether they could follow-up their massive 2022 performance with another strong season in 2023. After losing their first match of the season at Long Beach State, many fans in the volleyball world started to doubt the Longhorns’ potential. All season, despite playing strong and winning their seventh straight Big-12 Championship, they were ranked lower and not given as much credit as they deserved. Going into the playoffs, they were ranked as a 2-seed and not favored to win the National Championship. However, just over a year after their 2022 National Championship win, they put all the doubt to rest, easily dismantling a Nebraska Huskers team that had been on fire all season, only losing one match prior to the Championship. Once again, the Longhorns stood under the burnt orange and white confetti, this time at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, holding up their NCAA trophy.
With the back-to-back National Championship wins, and seven straight Big-12 Championships, it would be easy to assume that the Longhorns make perennial Final Four appearances. However, prior to 2020, when they fell to Kentucky in the National Championship, the last time they made a Final Four was in 2014, when they lost in four sets to BYU. Their most recent NCAA National Championship came in 2012, when they swept Oregon, and before that, 1988.
So how did the Longhorns go from not making a Final Four in almost six years, to losing in the National Championship, to winning back-to-back National Championships? And how did they manage to perform so dominantly despite losing two of the best players in college volleyball?
The first answer to this question is the coaching staff. Head coach Jerritt Elliot has been at the helm of Texas Volleyball for 23 years, since he became the seventh Texas Volleyball head coach in 2001. He has now led the Longhorns to 3 National Championship victories, and continues to bring in outstanding high school volleyball talent, as well as phenomenal players from the transfer portal.
At the start of the 2022 season, Elliot brought in David Hunt as one of his assistant coaches. Hunt previously led the Pepperdine Men’s Volleyball team, and during his five year tenure there, led Pepperdine to three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) regular season and tournament titles in 2019, and to the NCAA Semifinals in 2019.
Elliott also brought in Cursty Le Roux as an assistant coach in 2023 to join Hunt and Erik Sullivan, who just finished his 13th season on Elliott’s staff.
One of the big stories in college volleyball nowadays is the transfer portal. Love it or hate, the transfer portal results in some of the biggest momentum shifters over the course of any given offseason. Prior to the 2022 season, Elliott and his staff brought in 6 transfers, all of whom made a huge impact on the season. Setter Jenna Ewert transferred in from the University of Colorado, Middle Blocker Bella Bergmark transferred from UC Berkeley, Outside Hitter Madisen Skinner transferred from Kentucky, Libero Zoe Fleck transferred from UCLA, Libero Keonilei Akana transferred from Nebraska, and Middle Blocker Kayla Caffey transferred from Nebraska. These additions joined Outside Hitter Logan Eggleston and Middle Blocker Asjia O’Neal on what was already a high-level team.
After winning the National Championship in 2022, Ewert, Fleck, Caffey, and Eggleston graduated, leaving the Longhorns with multiple holes in their championship winning team. Luckily, more players joined the Texas roster through the transfer portal in 2023 to fill some of the needs Texas had. The big story of the NCAA tournament for Texas was outside hitter Jenna Wenaas, who transferred to the Forty Acres from Minnesota. Wenaas had 9 kills in the finals, following up her 10-kill performance in Texas’ semifinal match against Wisconsin. She proved time and time again to be a reliable option from the front row, especially when Madi Skinner was in the back row.
For the past two seasons, after transferring from Kentucky, Madi Skinner has been a dominant force for Texas, leading to a third-team All American honor in 2022 and a first-team All American honor in 2023. Skinner is currently set to return to Austin for another season with Texas in 2024.
One of the biggest stories for Texas Volleyball this season was freshman setter Ella Swindle. The 2021-2022 Gatorade Missouri Volleyball Player of the Year had big shoes to fill, taking over for the departing Ewert with the expectation of another National Championship run. She stepped up in a big way, leading the team all season long, and showing that her youth didn’t matter.
Another player who stepped up was libero Emma Halter. In 2022, she played in all 29 of Texas’ matches, primarily as a defensive specialist. In 2023, however, Halter took over as primary libero, racking up 441 digs while being the leader of Texas’ back row.
These two players were a large part of why Texas was so dominant this season and was able to replicate their success from 2022, and it will be exciting to see how they continue to grow and lead the team as they gain more experience.
The Texas Women’s Volleyball program has shown over the past few years that it is a force to be reckoned with. Even when faced with doubt and speculation, the team rises to the challenge and silences the haters. It is clear that Jerritt Elliott runs a program with a winning mentality and annual aspirations of a National Championship.
Texas will have multiple spots to fill before the start of the 2024 season, as middle blocker Asjia O’Neal is graduating and joining the Pro Volleyball Federation, and opposite Molly Phillips graduated from Texas and is transferring to USC to play beach volleyball to end her collegiate career. However, the Longhorns have already begun to make moves for next season, picking up setter Averi Carlson who transferred from Baylor, and welcoming incoming freshman middle blocker Ayden Ames, who was recently named the Gatorade National Volleyball Player of the Year.
It has become abundantly clear that the Texas Women’s Volleyball program is thriving and growing, and it is almost guaranteed that the volleyball world will be seeing a lot of the Longhorns in years to come.