Season openers mean many things. They mean beginnings for some athletes, endings for others and opportunities to fulfill expectations.
Friday evening at Gregory Gym, No. 3 Texas will play Rice to open its 2015 season, which will represent one last chance at history for seniors Molly McCage, Amy Neal and Kat Brooks.
“This is our last time to go to the Final Four and win it,” Neal said regarding the upcoming season in an interview with the Longhorn Network. “Don’t take any plays off. Don’t take anything for granted. Just really push these last four months, [and imagine] ending on a high note.”
The Longhorns host the American Campus Classic on Friday and Saturday. Texas will play UC-Irvine and LSU on Saturday.
Texas will depend on everyone this weekend, but primarily its seniors, who performed well in Saturday’s Orange-White Scrimmage. Neal led the White team to a 3–0 victory with 15 kills and eight digs. McCage notched a .571 hitting percentage with eight kills and two blocks. Brooks had four digs and a serving ace.
“Everyone’s contributing, and we need the whole team to be successful,” McCage said in an interview with LHN. “We expect greatness from each other. Pushing ourselves to excellence is what we strive for every day.”
Texas and Rice have faced each other 35 times. Texas has won all 35 times. But the Owls are coming to Austin with an experienced team that boasts 11 letter winners and two All-Conference USA athletes, juniors right side hitter Chelsey Harris and outside hitter Leah Mikesky. Rice will use its explosive offense, which ranked sixth in the nation in kills per set (14.45), to try and spoil Texas’ home opener.
When Texas takes on UC-Irvine, it will see three All-Big West Conference athletes in senior outside hitter Marisa Bubica and juniors setter Shelley Anderson and libero Arden Davis. The Anteaters will try to upset Texas with their strong defense — anchored by Davis, who was the 2014 conference leader with a 4.44 dig average, and senior middle blocker Ella Rosenfeld.
The LSU Tigers will rely on five returning starters, including four seniors, when they match up against Texas. Defense is the strong suit for LSU, particularly the back row led by senior defensive specialist Haley Smith, who recorded 514 digs for a 4.43 digs per set average last season. Senior outside/right side hitter Cati Leak, an All-SEC honoree after earning a .241 hitting average in 2014, will lead the Tiger attack.
Texas will counter these teams with a group that contains three All-American honorees in McCage, Neal and junior middle blocker Chiaka Ogbogu. It also has the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation, headlined by freshmen outside hitter Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani and middle blocker Morgan Johnson.
For the Longhorn seniors, their focus this year is the same as in their previous three, but the importance of achieving their goal is magnified.
“It would mean everything,” Brooks told LHN in regards to clinching another national title this season. “That’s our goal every year. But on a personal note, to end our Texas careers with a national championship would just be the icing on the cake.