By ERIC OLSON AP Sports Writer
To Texas, the only good thing about the loss to Kentucky in the NCAA women’s volleyball championship match might be that the Longhorns only had to stew over it for four months instead of eight.
The quick turnaround comes after the pandemic pushed back the national tournament to April. The new season begins this week and will run on its traditional schedule, with the champion crowned in December.
As the No. 1 team in the American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll, Texas is expected to be back in the national final for the fourth time in seven years.
“I think they’re very determined to to try to get back on top and try to win this. They understand what’s ahead of them,” said 21st-year coach Jerritt Elliott, whose only title came in 2012.
The talent across Division I volleyball runs deep because the NCAA extended player eligibility an extra year because of the pandemic. Of the nine seniors on the AVCA All-America first team, eight are back this fall.
The Longhorns were comparatively young when they made their run to the title match. The Big 12 played a split season, and Texas went 14-0 in the fall to win all or a share of their 12th conference championship in 14 years. They won 13 of 15 matches in the spring, including the crushing loss to Kentucky after they had posted an impressive win in the opening set.
“I think we’re always going to look back and say, ‘Look, this is what could have been. We were this close and we just kind of missed it,’ ” outside hitter and Big 12 preseason player of the year Logan Eggleston said. “That just left that bad taste in your mouth, and it’s kind of pushing us.”
Texas brings back its entire lineup of Eggleston and Brionne Butler, both first-team All-Americans, along with Skylar Fields, Asjia O’Neal and Jhenna Gabriel and liberos Sydney Petersen and Nalani Iosia.
“Going to a national championship and not winning really hurt,” Fields said. “You don’t want to feel that pain again.”
Texas opens Friday against San Diego and Sunday against UTSA. There’s one top-10 matchup this weekend, Baylor at Wisconsin. The NCAA semifinals and championship matches are Dec. 16 and 18 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
The preseason No. 2 Badgers were unbeaten until they fell flat in a three-set loss to Texas in the national semifinals. Dana Rettke is among six players to make the AVCA All-America first team four times and is bidding to become the first middle blocker since 2007 to be named national player of the year. Four other starters, including All-America setter Sydney Hilley, and the libero also return.
The No. 3 Wildcats, who won the Southeastern Conference’s first women’s volleyball national title, lost more key personnel than any other elite team. Gone are setter Madison Lilley, the national player of the year and NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, along with hitter Avery Skinner and libero Gabby Curry. First-team All-America hitter Alli Stumler and All-SEC hitter Madi Skinner return.
The No. 4 Huskies bring back all but one player from the Final Four team that became the first since the rally scoring era began in 2001 to win three five-set matches in an NCAA tournament. Setter Ella May Powell and right side Samantha Drechsel were first-team All-Americans and outside hitter Claire Hoffman was a second-teamer.
The No. 5 Cornhuskers bring back five starters and its libero and is a preseason top-five team for the seventh straight year. First-team All-America middle blocker Lauren Stivrins, coming off injury, decided late to return for a sixth year. Huskers got a scare last week when setter Nicklin Hames injured an ankle in a scrimmage. She’s expected to miss this weekend’s matches.
The Bears reached the NCAA regional semifinals in consecutive seasons for the first time and, at No. 10, are ranked in the preseason for the fourth straight year. Baylor is loaded with talent across the court but especially at outside hitter. That position features first-team All-American Yossiana Pressley, grad transfer Avery Skinner from Kentucky and Lauren Harrison, who received All-America honorable mention.
The No. 21 Cardinal already were going to be in a rebuild last spring after winning three of the previous four national titles, and then COVID-19 made a mess of the whole season. This is one of college volleyball’s blueblood programs, so it’s worth keeping an eye on this young Stanford team’s efforts to bounce back.