On a chilly night in Omaha, Nebraska, last December, the Texas Longhorns finally ended a decade of frustration in falling short of their third NCAA women’s volleyball title. Their 3-0 sweep of Louisville was the culmination of a near-perfect season, with just one loss.
Starting their final season in the Big 12, the Longhorns are once again atop the AVCA poll and looking to run it back in 2023. But it took the top-ranked Longhorns one match to equal their 2022 loss total as Texas fell to Long Beach State 3-1 to open the 2023 season Friday.
Texas, which along with Oklahoma moves to the SEC in 2024-25, is not the only former national champion going through a “last dance” conference-wise. Stanford (NCAA-record nine titles), UCLA (four titles), USC (three) and Washington (one) are in the final season of the Pac-12 as we know it.
UCLA, USC, Washington and Oregon (which has made the final four) are heading to the Big Ten, already a major volleyball powerhouse with past champions Penn State (seven NCAA titles), Nebraska (five) and Wisconsin (one).
How the conference realignments, along with the large amount of transfers and the impact of NIL deals continue to impact the sport will be one of the biggest storylines to follow in the coming years. This season feels like the end of an era.
Will Texas repeat? Can Stanford, which had a brief lull after winning three of four national championships from 2016 to 2019 but made the regional final again last year, grab a 10th championship? Could Louisville or Pittsburgh win a first?
It will all play out — including Nebraska’s sold-out football stadium match Aug. 30 — over the next few months before the final four in Tampa, Florida, with the national championship match airing on ABC for the first time.
ESPN’s experts take a look at what we’ll see on the road to Tampa.
What are the biggest storylines entering the season?
Michael Voepel: You can’t overstate how much the conference realignments may impact every other sport besides football, and that will be talked about a lot. For volleyball, the Pac-12 and Big Ten have been the heavy hitters, so to speak, for a very long time. The fact that next year four of those schools are headed to the Big Ten, while four others (Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State) go to the Big 12, and Texas heads to the SEC … it’s going to highlight as much as ever who can not only recruit at the highest level, but also hold onto their players. The Big 12 will already be different this year with the addition of BYU (a past final four team), Houston, Cincinnati and UCF.
Transfers are abundant and NIL and realignment already are having an impact. This season, there will be a lot of reminiscing and wondering how things will change, and who will adapt the best. And, ultimately, can Texas exit the Big 12 — which the Longhorns have dominated since Nebraska left for the Big Ten — with another national title?
Missy Whittemore: The biggest storyline for me is familiar faces in new places. The immediate impact of the transfer portal played a huge role in Texas claiming the title a season ago and I don’t think this year will be any different.
Sam Gore: Can Texas repeat as national champion and was not having a Big Ten team in the national semifinals a fluke, or the beginning of seeing more and more newcomers to the last four?
Courtney Lyle: Target on Texas! Everyone is out for the national champs. Can they repeat? Last year, coach Jerritt Elliott really boosted the setting and back row play. You combine that with the firepower Texas is known for in the front row and it got them a national championship. Does the back row play fall off with Zoe Fleck gone? How does a young setter handle so many weapons? I can’t wait to watch!
Holly McPeak: Texas has a ton of talent both new and old and has a good chance to get back to the national semifinals. Coach Elliott thinks this team will be a stronger blocking team than last year and he is excited to see what they can do. I do think a Big Ten team will get back to the last four, but parity is real and improving every year.
Paul Sunderland: There are two elite and complete teams going into the season, Stanford and Wisconsin. Can anyone challenge these two juggernauts? Texas is an obvious candidate but they have some question marks (see: replacing Logan Eggleston and libero Zoe Fleck).
Shelby Coppedge: The Big Ten transfer portal pickups and losses: Merritt Beason entering from the SEC, Jenna Weenus leaving for the Big 12. How will Big Ten teams’ chemistry look this season?
Alex Loeb: How will the defending champs look after losing so many key pieces like Eggleston, Fleck, Saige Ka’aha’aina-Torres, etc.? The fascinating thing is, despite all of those departures, this will actually be Elliott’s second-oldest team ever. The Longhorns are still loaded with veteran talent including the inside duo of Asjia O’Neal and Bella Bergmark, whom Elliott calls the best blocking middles he has ever coached.
Jennifer Hoffman: So many Cinderella stories emerged from a historical year of volleyball coverage from last season with Houston, Auburn and San Diego all having fans glued to their match outcomes, but two storylines come to mind: Can the Big Ten Conference get a team back to the national semifinals and can coach Dani Busboom Kelly and the Louisville Cardinals continue their yearly upward trajectory and win a national championship this season?
Which regular-season match are you most looking forward to watching?
Whittemore: I don’t have to look too far forward to the match Aug. 30 celebrating Volleyball Day in Nebraska. The fact that 80,000-plus fans will gather to see Nebraska take on Omaha is historic for our sport. I can’t wait to see Memorial (Stadium) as a volleyball venue.
Gore: Stanford at Texas before conference play. The Louisville/Pitt series in the ACC, as the winner of that head-to-head series could determine who gets a top-four seed.
McPeak: I agree with Shelby: Both of these matchups I really like. Louisville is loaded, and Pitt returns several key players. Stanford returns everyone, with some strong young players who are going to make them better in the gym and on the depth chart.
Lyle: Nebraska at Stanford should be a fun one! There are a lot of questions around Nebraska right now with so many new faces. Stanford returns pretty much everyone. I think the Cardinal are primed for a deep tournament run. This should be a great test for where the Cornhuskers are and what they need to fine tune.
Sunderland: Wisconsin-Nebraska is must watch home and away.
Coppedge: The faceoff between Wisconsin and Penn State. Wisconsin beat Penn State 3-2 in the regional final last year, and the stacked Nittany Lions will want revenge.
Hoffman: You can’t choose just one! If you’re looking at top 25 nonconference matchups, I really like Stanford and their consecutive matches at home vs. Big Ten teams (Ohio State, Minnesota, Nebraska) and trip to Louisville before heading into Pac-12 play.
Loeb: There are so many great matchups but personally, I can’t wait to see Nebraska play in front of a record-shattering 80,000-plus on Aug. 30. No matter what team you root for, it’s going to be a monumental moment for the sport and an absolutely electric atmosphere in Lincoln.
Voepel: I can’t wait to see the atmosphere for Nebraska’s match with Omaha at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, which is sold out. The Huskers’ program prides itself in being innovative, and they have the amazing in-state support to do things like this. From a competitive standpoint, Stanford at Texas (Sept. 3 on ESPN2) is a can’t-miss matchup we may see happen again in Tampa. And in conference play, the Nebraska-Wisconsin matchups (Oct. 21 in Lincoln and Nov. 24 in Madison) are usually pretty intense. But you could say that about so much of Big Ten play.
Which newcomer will make the biggest impact in 2023?
Whittemore: I think Mac Podraza, as a newcomer at Penn State, could make the biggest impact this year. In 2022 Texas, San Diego and Louisville all made their way to the national semifinals with transfer setters at the helm. Mac is good enough to have that same impact.
Gore: Nebraska transfer Merritt Beason. Beason has fit right in to one of volleyball’s most storied programs, to the point of being named a captain heading into the season. The All-American is a leader on and off the court, and could be the steadying force Nebraska needs to get back to the national semis.
Lyle: A healthy Charitie Luper is a dangerous thing! No play is dead with Luper on the floor. Human highlight reel! I can’t wait to see how she fits in with the hard-hitting Anna DeBeer. Louisville’s pins could be a force to be reckoned with.
McPeak: I think Beason will be a big impact player but I hear Jenna Wenaas is playing amazing and jumping higher this year and I think she will really help Texas reload. Luper is a special talent and I think she can help Louisville go the distance, even though she has to replace Claire Chaussee.
Sunderland: Tough one with so many transfers, but Beason at Nebraska is key. Others are Ella Swindle, freshman setter at Texas; and Bergen Reilly, freshman setter at Nebraska.
Coppedge: Freshman Nebraska outside hitter Harper Murray. She has strong leadership guiding her, and the confidence and talent to join her upperclassmen teammates in scoring. Also, Texas freshman 6-foot-3 setter Ella Swindle, fully running the court as a teen.
Hoffman: For transfers, put me down for Beason, Wenaas and Luper. For true freshmen, it’s Murray for Nebraska that I will have eyes on to see how she can come in and make an immediate impact.
Loeb: Former Golden Gopher Wenaas was a big addition for Texas. Elliott called her one of the most improved players during the offseason and she showed that during their exhibition matches. She’s set to have a major impact.
Voepel: At 5-foot-9, Luper is small these days for a hitter, but she’s such a powerful leaper and hitter, you don’t really notice. She was very good at UCLA the last two years, leading the Bruins at 3.28 kills per set in 2022. Chausee led the Cardinals with 3.8 kills per set last season, so Luper really has an important spot to fill.
Who will win national player of the year?
Whittemore: There are a lot of good choices, but I would choose Stanford’s Kendall Kipp. She is a complete player with valuable experience from a season ago, but still has something to prove.
Gore: Texas middle Asjia O’Neal. Returning All-American and national champion. The daughter of former NBA star Jermaine O’Neal, she had the honor of being selected to play for Team USA last summer, and despite being one of the youngest players on the team highly impressed coach Karch Kiraly and her more experienced teammates. She has a shot at making the Olympic team for Paris, so she will raise her level even higher during the Texas season.
Lyle: Asjia O’Neal already shines bright for Texas, but I think this year she has the chance to take on an even bigger role in the middle. She’s got a hammer of an arm and a block that keeps hitters awake at night.
McPeak: Texas teammates O’Neal, who is pretty dominant at middle blocker, and Madi Skinner have a good shot at it, as does OH Kendall Kipp for Stanford.
Sunderland: Kami Miner of Stanford will be the national player of the year.
Coppedge: O’Neal. If you can win a national championship and make waves on USA volleyball after having two open heart surgeries, I don’t see who could beat you in anything.
Loeb: Skinner and O’Neal will be vying for it right down to the wire.
Voepel: O’Neal has a good chance to follow former teammate Logan Eggleston, who was national player of the year in 2022. But I agree this also could be Kipp’s year. The 6-5 opposite hitter, in her fifth season with the Cardinal, was a freshman on Stanford’s last national championship team (2019) and Pac-12 player of the year last year.
What four teams will make it to Tampa and who is the last team standing?
Whittemore: My last four teams standing are Stanford, Wisconsin, Penn State and Texas. I think Stanford wins it all because the backbone of the team will be the setter/libero combo of Miner and Elena Oglivie — enough said. After missing out on the finals last year, I think the Big Ten will be motivated to return and Texas’ talent is undeniable.
Gore: It’s tough enough to pick who’s going to win conference championships, so who the last four teams are in Tampa is something I’d rather not predict, but rather, sit back and be inspired by who it ends up being!
Lyle: I’m going to pass on this question since I’m calling the broadcast of the semifinals and championship.
McPeak: Impossible to predict right now, but teams that might have the best shot … Louisville, Wisconsin, Pitt, Texas.
Sunderland: Stanford, Wisconsin, Texas and Nebraska. Book it and enjoy Tampa.
Coppedge: Wisconsin, Texas, Kentucky and Pitt.
Loeb: Wisconsin, Louisville, Pitt and Texas.
Voepel: It was cool to see a surprise final four team last year in San Diego, a good program that finally got its breakthrough by beating Stanford in the regional final. Meanwhile, Pitt and Louisville had their final four debuts in 2021, then made it that far again last year.
The absence of a Big Ten team at the 2022 final four — 2021 champion Wisconsin and Ohio State both lost in the regional finals — was an anomaly; we don’t expect to see that again.
Hate to be boring, because we could have another run like what the Toreros did last year. But especially to start the season, you go with what is “most” predictable: Texas, Wisconsin, Stanford, Louisville.
There is nothing about the Longhorns’ somewhat tortured history at the final four to indicate they will repeat. The problem has not been getting that far; they’ve done that 14 times in the NCAA era. Finishing with a title has been tougher (1988, 2012, 2022). But let’s give the program a lot of credit for always being in the mix. And this year could be their repeat.
POST AUTHOR: ESPN