December 15, 2023
By Joey Johnston for VolleyballMag.com
TAMPA — Normally, there’s tremendous pressure on a defending national champion. Nerves can be frayed. Expectations must be managed.
But the Texas Longhorns are loose, smiling and eager.
Who saw it coming?
Following Thursday night’s four-set victory against No. 3 Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament’s national semifinals at Amalie Arena, the seventh-seeded Longhorns (27-4) will play for back-to-back national titles when they face top-seeded Nebraska Cornhuskers (33-1) in Sunday’s 3 p.m. Eastern finale on ABC-TV.
Texas coach Jerritt Elliott, with an extra off-day — this is the first time the national championship is not decided on Saturday — will have plenty of time to ponder the matchup with Nebraska.
Thursday night — actually Friday morning in the post-midnight interview — Elliott already began building up the Texas-Nebraska showdown.
“It’s an iconic matchup,’’ Elliott said. “It’s great for the sport. I think both social media and both fan bases will be pumping this up.
“There’s such a rich tradition of alumni, All-Americans, people who have won national championships on both sides. You know, it’s Lakers-Celtics. Regardless of how long these two programs have played each other, they’re going to be really fired up.
“This should be a lot of fun for all the fans involved across the country. People will be tuning in, I can guarantee that. With the popularity of our sport, we’re just hitting the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more to come.”
We’ll stop short of painting Texas as a “Cinderella’’ team. Maybe it’s a better portrayal to say the Longhorns are a talented, seasoned team that weathered a series of potholes, along with a near-elimination moment in the postseason.
The Longhorns were 5-3 in the early season, hardly the expected position for a preseason No. 1-ranked team. They pulled it together and earned a No. 2 regional seed, but weren’t widely picked to reach the national semifinals. And in the region semifinals, they faced a fourth-set match point against Tennessee.
After surviving, now they’re thriving. Texas has won nine in a row.
Against Wisconsin, with a front line featuring 6-foot-9 Anna Smrek and 6-7 Carter Booth, Texas used its speed, guile and athleticism to overcome that formidable wall. After the opening sets…