Texas volleyball can build on its legacy, Louisville can make history

OMAHA, Neb. — For the Texas Longhorns, winning the national championship in women’s volleyball this season would be about furthering a program legacy that is already vast. For the Louisville Cardinals, it would mean elevating their program and conference, the ACC, to a new height.

The contrast between the programs from a historical perspective is huge, obviously. But to look at the teams that will take the court for the NCAA final at CHI Health Center at 8 p.m. ET Saturday (ESPN2/ESPN App), you don’t see as much difference.

Texas is 27-1 and went 15-1 in Big 12 play. Louisville is 31-2, and went 17-1 in the ACC. These programs have the best winning percentage in Division I over the last two seasons, with the Cardinals at .955 (63-3) and the Longhorns at .947 (54.3).

“We’re excited to be here, to have an opportunity to get to the top of the mountain,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said. “We’ve got a lot of respect for what Louisville does and the competitive team they have. They’re extremely well-coached.

“We’ve got to get our team organized so that we can play Texas volleyball and have a great chance to do what we set out to accomplish.”

Louisville’s Dani Busboom Kelly could become the first woman head coach to win the NCAA Division I title in volleyball. As a player for Nebraska from 2002 to 2006, she helped lead the Cornhuskers to a 124-10 record, as they won three Big 12 titles and appeared in two final fours, taking the NCAA title in 2006. As a senior that year, Busboom Kelly moved from starting setter to libero, a selfless adjustment that helped the Huskers win the championship by making them even stronger.

Busboom Kelly faced Elliott’s Texas teams as both a player and assistant coach at Nebraska, including a victory against the Longhorns in the 2015 NCAA final. And her Louisville squad got one of its breakthrough NCAA tournament victories in 2019 against Texas, winning 3-2 in the regional semifinals.

“He’s built a dynasty, and every year they’re expected to be in the final four,” Busboom Kelly said of Elliott. “And I know when they’re not in the final four, people are asking, ‘What’s wrong with Texas this year?’

“So it’s a pretty hard spot to be in, and it’s a lot of pressure year in and year out, and they handle it really, really well. Just really impressive, just the consistency of the program.”

Yet Busboom Kelly knows plenty about that from her time at Nebraska, which has played for (10) and won (five) even more NCAA titles than Texas. This will be the Longhorns’ eighth NCAA final, and they’ve won it all twice.

Texas always has an abundance of talent, and this season that’s led by outside hitter Logan Eggleston, who was named AVCA national player of the year Friday. She and the Longhorns know the Cardinals will do all they can to serve aggressively in the title match. That’s part of what got Louisville this far.

In Thursday’s 3-2 win over fellow ACC team Pittsburgh in the semifinals, Louisville had 10 services aces. And Anna DeBeer served eight consecutive points to start the fifth set, which Louisville dominated 15-2. According to ESPN Stats & Info, that was the largest fifth-set margin of victory in the national semifinals or finals since women’s college volleyball went to rally scoring in 2001.

“That’s what a lot of teams plan to do against us,” Eggleston said of the Louisville serve. “They need to get us off the net so we’re out of system. So we’ve been facing it a lot throughout the season in a lot of our games. Also, we have a lot of great servers in practice, which is making us a lot better.”

Eggleston was part of the Texas team that lost in the final here in Omaha in April 2021. That’s technically the 2020 championship, as the tournament was moved from December to the spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Eggleston’s accomplishments stand out even in the star-filled Longhorns history, with just one achievement left for her to get: a national championship.

“I mean, that’s the main goal that we’ve been thinking about all year,” she said. “It’s the reason we came to Texas.”

Busboom Kelly is the reason players have been drawn to Louisville. When she played collegiately, the ACC didn’t have a serious contender for a national championship. She has helped change that.

“I just think we need to not be wowed by plays that they make,” Busboom Kelly said, acknowledging how mesmerizing the Longhorns can be. “We know that they’re going to make some plays that are really unbelievable, but each play is only worth one point.

“So if we can keep that in mind and stay consistent with what we do and disciplined, it will definitely put us in a much better spot.”

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