Final Four notebook: As fans, interest increase, college volleyball is on the rise

Louisville's Anna DeBeer practices blocks during Wednesday's open practice session at the NCAA Tournament at CHI Health Center in Omaha, Neb. Saturday night's championship match will pit the winner of Thursday's two national semifinals.
Louisville's Anna DeBeer practices blocks during Wednesday's open practice session at the NCAA Tournament at CHI Health Center in Omaha, Neb. Saturday night's championship match will pit the winner of Thursday's two national semifinals.

Omaha, Neb. — Volleyball continues to experience solid growth and Texas coach Jerritt Elliott has been at the forefront of the movement.

He bleeds volleyball and his advocacy along with others in the coaching fraternity appears to be paying off.

Elliott has a passion for bringing a volleyball showdown to Dallas on Texas-Oklahoma football weekend and is in serious talks to make it happen. Ten years ago, that perhaps would have gotten him laughed out of the room, but now the sport is on an upward arc in terms of attendance and fan interest.

Golden: Her teammates want to send Texas' Logan Eggleston out with a much-deserved national title

Wisconsin’s 2021 NCAA championship win over Nebraska in Columbus, Ohio, drew a record crowd of 18,755 and drew 1.19 million viewers to ESPN, a 71% increase from the 2020 championship match, according to Overall viewership of the tournament was up 45%.

Thursday night's semifinals were on ESPN. Saturday's championship match will be broadcast on ESPN2.

“What we're seeing with ESPN right now and the excitement that we're having with our ratings and what's going on with the sport, I’m excited for that,” Elliott said.

More: With Saige Ka'aha'aina-Torres leading the offense, Texas looks set in the Final Four

On the professional level, Athletes Unlimited has a volleyball league of 44 players that rotate teams while the recently announced Pro Volleyball Federation league will begin competition in February 2024.

Elliott understands the financial and budgetary/travel concerns that come with such leagues but is excited about the prospect of more eyeballs on his sport.

“I think they’ve got the right people in place.” he said. “I say about my program that we need to recruit, we need to have a great culture and we need to have a brand. Those are the three things how we create longevity with our program. So I hope they can do it. I think we got all hands on board. I think they got some smart people and I'm cheering for them to make it.”

More: Freshman libero Emma Halter has given Texas valuable postseason play along the back row

Omaha stakes: Over the years, members of the Texas baseball program have come to call Omaha their second home. Not that the school's volleyball players are strangers to the city.

This year marks the second time that Omaha has hosted just the NCAA's Final Four in volleyball. During the 2020-21 pandemic season, the entire postseason tournament was held in Omaha. Texas has appeared at all three of those Omaha events. In 2015, Texas was the NCAA volleyball tournament's runner-up. The Longhorns also reached the championship match in April 2021.

On Wednesday, Texas participated in an open practice at the CHI Health Center and team captains Logan Eggleston and Asjia O'Neal joined Elliott at a press conference. The Longhorns also enjoyed a team dinner at a local steakhouse.

The Longhorns had a different experience 20 months ago. During that tournament, Texas played five times in a 10-day span. Part of that 48-team competition was held in a convention hall at the CHI Health Center, and attendance was still limited once the bigger matches were moved into the 17,560-seat arena. (The championship match between Texas and Kentucky had an announced draw of 5,116). All media availabilities were done over Zoom. The Longhorns weren't required to be sequestered during their stay in Omaha, but Texas still adhered to self-imposed restrictions in an effort to avoid any COVID-related issues.

There are still five Longhorns — O'Neal, Eggleston, Molly Phillips, Melanie Parra and Reilly Heinrich — on the roster who were with the team during that 2021 pandemic tournament. O'Neal noted on Wednesday that "we made it two years ago, but with COVID it was very different."

"It's definitely this kind of redemption arc. We want to leave this place happier than we did last time," Eggleston later added. "But it's going to be completely different. We were here during COVID. There weren't a lot of fans. It was a totally different vibe."

More: Saige Ka’aha’aina-Torres looks to set Texas up with a title

More: Penn State transfer has blossomed San Diego into a Final Four program

Ex-Huskers return to Nebraska: Even though Nebraska was eliminated in the Sweet 16, there were still Huskers ties for the local fans to root for on Thursday. Texas middle blocker Kayla Caffey and UT defensive specialist Keonilei Akana played at Nebraska the last two seasons.

Caffey is averaging 1.52 kills and 1.03 blocks per set this year. Akana ranks third among the Longhorns and only Eggleston has served more aces.

Akana and Caffey contributed to last year's Nebraska team that fell to Wisconsin in the NCAA championship match. Akana announced in May that she was transferring to Texas. Caffey followed her in August.

"Being here for the past two-and-a-half years, I have a special place in my heart for Nebraska," Akana told the Lincoln Journal Star. "(Making the Final Four) is always special, but knowing that I’d be able to come back to Omaha with the fans being here, it’ll be fun."

Akana and Caffey are two of the six transfers who joined the Longhorns this season.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Final Four volleyball notebook: Texas' Elliott loves the sport's rise