Texas volleyball is back to where it is used to being: in the mix for a national championship.
It takes a lot to maintain the level the program has been at for most of its 46-season history. And it has worn a bit on Texas to have been so close to an NCAA title several times in the past decade -- eight trips to the final four between 2008 and '16 -- and win only one title in that stretch.
Then again, should the word "only" even be used, considering how difficult it has become, with volleyball's increased parity, to even make the final four?
"The pressure is pretty relentless," Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. "The recruiting side is always challenging: You're always worried about being able to fill the shoes of the great players you have now with the next generation.
"And at times it's hard to get fulfillment out of it, because anything short of at least the [final four] feels like a disappointing year. The fear of losing games has almost taken on a bigger role than the enjoyment of winning. If you talk to a lot of coaches, that's what happens."
Elliott isn't really complaining; just being honest. And he knows Texas' problems are ones that most programs envy. No. 2 seed Texas is host to one of four NCAA regionals this Friday and Saturday. Friday's semifinals involving the top four seeds will be televised on ESPNU, starting with No. 16 Purdue at No. 1 Baylor at noon ET, No. 13 Texas A&M at No. 4 Wisconsin at 2 p.m., Louisville at No. 2 Texas at 4 and Utah at No. 3 Stanford at 11. The other regional semifinals will be streamed on ESPN3.
Stanford is the elite of the elite, with eight NCAA titles, including two of the past three years. Wisconsin is seeking its third final four and first title. Baylor is the newcomer to volleyball's elite; the Bears have advanced this far only once before.
Then there's Texas, which won NCAA titles in 1988 and 2012 and has gone to the final four 11 other times. Eight of those are under Elliott, who joined the program in 2001. That year and 2003 are the only times he hasn't won at least 23 games.
When he took over, Texas was in its fifth year competing in the Big 12, a step up in competition compared to the Southwest Conference, where the Longhorns went 134-6 with nine perfect conference records in 14 seasons.
While the Big 12 initially provided more of a challenge, the league's other powerhouse volleyball program, Nebraska, moved to the Big Ten in 2011. Since 2007, Texas has been first -- or tied for it -- 11 times in the Big 12, including this year. The other two were second-place finishes.
"At times it's hard to get fulfillment out of [coaching], because anything short of at least the [final four] feels like a disappointing year." Texas coach Jerritt Elliott
Winning conference championships is standard for Texas, but it's new for Baylor, which tied with the Longhorns for the Big 12 title this season. Though the Longhorns swept the Bears in Austin, Texas, in October, Baylor beat Texas in five sets in November in Waco, just the third time Baylor has won in their 87-match series. The schools are just 100 miles apart, and having two NCAA regionals that close is a big deal for the Big 12. Elliott is glad for Baylor's success.
"It's huge for us; everybody thinks we don't want that, but we want our conference to get better," Elliott said. "Our conference needs to continue to grow and develop. It was fun to play at Baylor where there were over 7,000 fans."
This NCAA tournament thus far hasn't felt very fun for Elliott, though. The Longhorns had a second-round struggle against UC Santa Barbara, when Texas went down 2-1 and seemed to be lacking some confidence.
As Elliott and his assistants conferred before the fourth set, former Texas player Khat Bell, who was on Texas' 2012 national championship team, left her spot in the stands and leaned into the Longhorns' huddle to give them a quick pep talk.
"We really want to uphold the legacy and the culture here," said senior libero Autumn Rounsaville, who is from Dripping Springs, Texas, about 24 miles west of the Longhorn's Gregory Gymnasium. "So whenever we put that jersey on, we just know that it goes beyond us. We want to uphold the winning tradition for our alumni."
Elliott has put a premium on his alumni being invested in and connected to the program.
"The common theme I hear from the alumni is, 'I would do anything to have another year of eligibility,'" said Elliott, whose team won in five sets, led by sophomore Logan Eggleston's 22 kills. "Because when they're in it, you think life is so tough with school and the demands of playing. But then you get out in the real world and realize, 'This was the greatest time of my life.'
"So they relate to today's players and how lucky they are. And they want them to succeed. They want the players to represent them well, because they know the blood, sweat and tears they put in."
Ultimately, Elliott relishes the individual and team journeys of growth and discovery, despite the demands of trying to stay on top. Of course, he's agonized over the final four trips that didn't result in a title. The 2009 final, when Texas went up 2-0 on Penn State, then lost three close sets -- 15-13 in the fifth -- was the hardest to take. That was during the Nittany Lions' four-peat, which included two perfect seasons.
"Sometimes, it's just about timing," Elliott said. "You look at our 2009 team; it was phenomenal. We'd probably win most years, but we ran into that Penn State team. It was devastating.
"But now it's getting harder from the second round on. We were on the brink of losing. Minnesota faced two match points against Creighton. Cincinnati upset Pittsburgh. The game really is just getting that much more difficult."
Still the Longhorns are in the regional semifinals for the 14th year in a row. Other programs have improved, but Texas doesn't go away.