Call it a "fall final four" matchup.
When No. 1 Texas hosts No. 3 Baylor on Thursday and Friday (8 p.m. ET, Longhorn Network), plenty will be at stake, even though the NCAA volleyball championship is five months away.
The race for a Big 12 championship is ongoing, and with it, an automatic NCAA tournament bid. Both teams are looking for résumé-boosting wins during this unique, coronavirus pandemic-modified fall season.
And given Texas' long winning tradition and Baylor's final four appearance a year ago, this matchup of heavyweights serves both as a highlight of college volleyball's unconventional 2020 fall slate as well as a preview of what could come in the spring.
"It's great," Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. "It's exciting for our players. ... I know that Baylor and our program are excited to compete at this level and see where we're at."
"We're really pumped," Baylor setter Hannah Sedwick said. "It's always fun to get to play Texas."
Faced with challenging circumstances that have impacted all college sports, both teams have found a way to excel.
The Longhorns (10-0) and Bears (11-1) have embraced the changes, which have been significant. Instead of playing at its customary home venue, the intimate Gregory Gym (seating: 4,000), Texas has played home matches at the much larger Frank Erwin Center (capacity: 16,540), where Texas basketball plays, to allow for socially distanced seating at games. Baylor was already accustomed to playing at the Ferrell Center (seating: 6,000 for volleyball), but has done so with fewer fans because of COVID-19 protocols.
Texas outside hitter Logan Eggleston admitted the first time the Longhorns played in Erwin it felt "weird," with spaced out fans preventing the loud atmosphere they grew accustomed to in a packed Gregory. But over time, she has grown to appreciate it.
"I actually really enjoy playing in Frank Erwin; I think it's cool to be in a big environment," Eggleston said. "We've definitely grown way more comfortable in there."
Like all Big 12 teams, Baylor and Texas are in the home stretch of a 16-match conference-only schedule. Instead of twice-weekly matches against different opponents spaced out by multiple days, they're playing the same opponent on back-to-back nights to minimize travel.
Baylor coach Ryan McGuyre likes how the Bears have handled it.
"On the back-to-back matches, we've been really good on day two throughout the entire season," McGuyre said. "The flip side is how can we be a little bit sharper and more prepared for the first match of the week?"
The physical and mental drain that comes from the schedule hasn't been easy, but the Bears have been resilient.
"I feel like we're handling everything well," Baylor outside hitter Yossiana Pressley said. "We're just doing everything that we can to make sure that we're doing our part, whether that's getting extra reps in before and after practice, coming in early for rehab, we're just making sure that we're good overall, getting our work done ... and making the most of every day."
Elliott's aim was for his team to look at the challenges positively and make it a "special year."
"They've really embraced that," he said. "And now their goals are within sight, their first goal [winning a Big 12 championship] and they're seeing their improvement rate, and they want to, obviously, accomplish some high things at this level."
Adding to the uncertainty is the upcoming break the teams will have. Once the teams complete their Big 12 schedules later this month, they'll pause until the spring semester in preparation for a modified schedule and postseason run. The spring season will start Jan. 22, the NCAA tournament selections will be made April 4 and the field will be smaller: 48 teams instead of the usual 64, with the final four held April 22-24. And the volleyball powerhouses in the Big Ten and Pac-12, which postponed their fall volleyball seasons until the spring semester, will join the fray.
With the reduced field, winning a conference championship -- and the automatic postseason bid -- is important, but both coaches feel like Baylor and Texas have shown enough to secure at least an at-large berth.
"I think Baylor and Texas are safe right now," Elliott said. "I would imagine they're going to take at least two [Big 12 teams]."
Said McGuyre: "I feel we've both done enough."
The matches should be highly competitive, if their last ones are any indication. Last season, Baylor and Texas shared the Big 12 championship and split their two matches ("The play on both sides of the net was so high-level," Eggleston said). They were the top two seeds in last year's tournament, which Baylor parlayed into its program's first final four appearance. Texas, which has three national championships to its credit, four runner-up finishes and a consistent track record of producing All-Americans, is a perennial power.
The series will also showcase two stars: Pressley, who was the AVCA National Player of the Year last season and is the reigning Big 12 Player of the Year, and Eggleston, who was the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week the first three weeks of this season and is second in the conference in service aces and has the fourth-best hitting percentage.
After its historic 2019, Baylor is working to stay at the elite level long-term. Pressley said beating Texas last season -- which ended an 18-match Baylor losing streak to the Longhorns -- changed the players' outlook.
"It definitely feels different," Pressley said. "Last year [after beating Texas] it was like 'Oh, we can do this.'... Years before, it was like 'Hey, let's try to get a set. ... But now that we know that we can win, it's like 'OK, let's make sure we're doing X, Y and Z to accomplish that same goal.'"
Said Eggleston: "We all kinda expected it to come down to us and Baylor ... that brings even more motivation."
McGuyre, Baylor's coach since 2015, said last year's win was a confidence boost that helped push Baylor toward the final four.
"It was something that was part of the dream, part of the checklist," McGuyre said. "Like 'Hey wanna win conference? We gotta beat Texas.'
"The conference will go through Texas always. Hopefully other programs will say: 'It's got to go through Baylor, too' at some point."
Elliott, who is in his 20th year at Texas, said, "I think Baylor is here to stay for awhile."
And though the Bears are a game behind the Longhorns in the loss column, Pressley said they don't feel added pressure going into the series. Ever since dropping their season-opening match to Kansas, they've been focused on sweeping every opponent, which the Bears have.
"We have had to win two-in-a-row just to maintain consistency," she said. "There's not necessarily any pressure that's new. We know what we have to do and we're going to do that."
No matter what happens this week, both teams know it's just one step -- albeit an important one -- toward a bigger goal down the road.
"We know that the games we're playing this fall do matter," Eggleston said. "It's a good way to stay focused because everything's so crazy this fall. ... At least we know at the end of this weird fall season there's going to be some kind of championship named, so it keeps us motivated."