Texas has made climb back to nation's elite

Very few volleyball programs can match the tradition of success enjoyed by the University of Texas.

The Longhorns were the dominant team in the Southwest Conference, winning 14 consecutive conference titles. They also boast 23 NCAA Tournament bids, four appearances in the national semifinals and a national championship in 1988.

But after Mick Haley left Texas for the U.S. national team, the Longhorns slipped out of the national rankings and the national spotlight. The program hit rock bottom in 2000 when Texas finished 10-18, finished eighth in the Big 12 and missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since its inception in 1982.

At almost the same time, the University of Southern California was beginning its return to prominence under the direction of interim head coach Jerritt Elliott. He assembled what was arguably one of the greatest recruiting classes ever in 1999, a class that went on to win back-to-back national championships.

Unfortunately for Elliott, he wasn't around to enjoy the fruits of his labor. His short tenure at USC came to an end when Haley was hired as the Trojans' head coach following a four-year stint with USA Volleyball.

So when Texas needed a coach who could lead the Longhorns back to the top of college volleyball, Elliott was an obvious choice, especially after his role in the renaissance of USC.

"At Texas, we didn't have as many pieces in place," Elliott said. "This was a complete rebuilding process. When we took over, we made sure we were recruiting the right type of athletes and not recruiting in numbers. So we were thin the first three or four years."

At the start of his fifth season, it appeared that Texas might struggle in 2005. The Longhorns lost a pair of All-American outside hitters in Mira Topic and Bethany Howden, who accounted for 1,013 kills and nearly 60 percent of their offense, and they would have to rely primarily on younger, less experienced players.

Fortunately for Texas, the Longhorns got an infusion of offense from an unlikely source. Breaking from their tradition of attacking from the outside, the new-look Longhorns have been dominant in the middle, thanks primarily to junior Brandy Magee and sophomore Leticia Armstrong.

Armstrong leads the team with 103 total blocks and is second with 240 kills and a .400 hitting percentage. Magee is third with 223 kills and a .396 hitting percentage, and second with 57 total blocks. Both players are ranked among the Big 12 leaders.

"We knew when we recruited her [Armstrong] she had the athleticism and the ability to be a dominant player at this level," Elliott said. "She has become one of the best middle blockers in the country.

"Having her has really changed our game plan. We're a lot more balanced than we've been in the past."

While opponents are dazzled by Armstrong's athleticism, they fall victim to Magee's consistency. Not only are her statistics better than 2004 when she hit .358 with 301 kills and was honorable mention All-Big 12, her continued growth has added increased diversity to the attack.

"She's a lot more effective behind the setter, where in years past she was primarily in front of the setter," Elliott said. "That has opened up our offense a little bit more and really made us dominant in the middle."

The most obvious sign that Texas has once again become a dominant program is its 17-3 record and No. 14 ranking in the latest CSTV/AVCA coaches' poll. The Longhorns have won 11 of their last 13 matches, including five matches against ranked opponents. Putting the program back in the national spotlight is one of the reasons the current group of players came to Austin.

"I heard all about what a great program Texas had and I really wanted to be a part of building it back up," sophomore setter Michelle Moriarty said. "I think everybody is starting to see what we can do for the campus again."

The coaching staff and the goals they set for the program also attracted top players, and anyone who doubts Texas will be back among the elite programs need only to look at what Elliott accomplished in just two seasons at USC.

"When I was being recruited, I said the state of Texas was the only place I didn't want to go," Magee said. "I chose it when I came on my unofficial visit during my junior year. It was my last visit, but it was my favorite.

"I could see from the success that he [Elliott] had at USC that he could get it done. I knew that he would bring in the right players to help out. I was really excited to part of the program. Texas is going in the right direction."

With four weeks remaining in the regular season, the Longhorns are in sole possession of second place in the Big 12 conference. They have crucial road matches remaining at No. 13 Missouri and at resurgent Colorado. Texas will also have an opportunity to avenge two of its three losses when Iowa State and Nebraska visit Gregory Gym.

Elliott is adamant the Longhorns will not look past any conference match by focusing on their showdown with No. 1 Nebraska. But those are exactly the kind of matches that draw players to Austin.

"We want to be able to battle with Nebraska," Elliott said. "Nebraska needs us to be good and we need Nebraska to be good to get us prepared for the ultimate goal of winning a national championship."

Team of the Week
No. 5 Notre Dame proved that it takes more than a preseason poll to knock the Irish from the top of the Big East conference. Notre Dame remained perfect in the conference with a 10-0 record and improved to 20-1 overall with a 30-28, 30-28, 27-30, 30-27 victory over previously unbeaten and then-No. 6 Louisville. It was only the second time two teams ranked in the top 10 had played at the Joyce Center. The following day, the Irish extended their winning streak to 13 matches with a 30-24, 30-27, 30-27 victory over Cincinnati. Notre Dame was rewarded with its highest ranking, climbing to No. 5 in the latest CSTV/AVCA Division I coaches' poll. It marks the first time in the history of the poll a team that was unranked to begin a season cracked the top five. Notre Dame is one of only six teams to have four or more victories against opponents ranked in the AVCA Top 25. The Irish have wins against No. 6 Florida, No. 7 Louisville, No. 14 Texas and No. 16 USC. All four were ranked ahead of Notre Dame at the time of the match.

Wise choice
Florida coach Mary Wise has been elected to serve as president of the American Volleyball Coaches Association. Her six-year tenure will begin in 2006 when she joins the AVCA Board of Directors as president-elect for two years. Wise's two-year term as president will begin in 2008. Wise has been an active member of the organization, serving on the CSTV/AVCA Division I Coaches Top 25 Poll and television committees. Now in her 15th season at Florida and her 19th as a head coach at the Division I level, Wise has compiled a 561-113 overall record and a 480-50 mark with the Gators. She is a two-time winner of the Tachikara/AVCA National Coach of the Year award (1992, 1996) and has been the SEC Coach of the Year 10 times. Wise is the only female to coach in the NCAA championship match, the only female coach to have more than one Final Four appearance and the fastest coach to reach 500 career wins.

Rally Points
Senior middle blocker Lindsay Stalzer broke the Bradley record for career kills with 17 during a sweep of Illinois-Chicago. In a five-game victory at Western Illinois, she passed her own school record for kills in a single season and became the fifth player in school history to have two seasons with 500 or more kills. … Senior outside hitter Laura Jones broke Texas A&M's career kill record with 14 during a loss at Texas. She finished the match with 1,778 to surpass the mark set by Kristie Smedsrud in 1997. … Senior libero/outside hitter Christie Gardner is now Northwestern's career leader in digs after posting 18 at Penn State. She finished the match with 1,437, seven more than Janine Makar's record, which had stood since 1988. … Junior setter Blair Buchanan became Albany's career assist leader during a 3-0 victory at Maryland-Baltimore County. She finished the match with 3,322 assists, surpassing Lisa Greiner's total of 3,260. … Wichita State senior middle blocker Elizabeth Meyers posted eight block assists in two matches last week to set the school's career record with 422. … Senior outside hitter Kim Glass broke the Arizona record for career kills, finishing the weekend with 54 and a career total of 1,870. She passed Barb Bell's mark of 1,858 that was established in 1996. Arizona senior middle blocker Bre Ladd and senior outside hitter Jennifer Abernathy reached the 1,000-kill plateau during a 3-1 victory over Washington State. … Cal senior outside hitter Jenna Brown reached a pair of milestones with seven kills during a sweep of Oregon. She eclipsed the 1,000-kill mark and became the fifth Bear to record 1,000 kills and digs. … Princeton junior libero Jenny McReynolds set an Ivy League record with 54 digs in a 3-1 victory at Dartmouth. … Junior middle hitter Leigh Launhardt tied the Canisius record for block assists in a five-game match -- and became the first player in school history to reach 200 career block assists -- during a loss to Sienna. … Senior outside hitter Becky Corb had eight digs against Maryland-Eastern Shore and became the second player in Loyola (Md.) history to record 1,000 kills and digs. She also reached the 1,500-kill mark with 15 during the match. … South Carolina freshman outside hitter Marija Milosevic tied the school record with 28 kills against Georgia. Junior outside hitter Shonda Cole became the 11th player in school history to reach
the 1,000-career kill mark with 17 kills during the same match.

Dave Reed has covered college volleyball for national publications since 1996.