Playing Through

UT's Destinee Hooker is a dominating force on the volleyball court

Playing Through
Photo by Sandy Carson

Compared to a crowd of 98,000-plus that regularly fills Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium these days, a gathering of a mere 4,324 people may seem a paltry thing. University of Texas volleyball fans cramming into UT's Gregory Gymnasium know better.

They know that when it comes to athletic arenas, size doesn't matter. What really matters is intimacy and togetherness. True, you also get that in spades at a Longhorn football game, but you almost never do at UT soccer or basketball games, and the reason has little to do with the team or the competition. The reason why is that the venues those teams play in just blow. They're too big, too cavernous, too alienating. You come away feeling vaguely lonely. Not so at Gregory Gym. Not when quite possibly the best athlete on campus is strutting her stuff on national television.

I'm speaking of the spectacular Destinee Hooker, who invariably shines when the television cameras are on. (It's why they call her D-TV.) Against No. 3 Nebraska last week, she was blinding. In the first set alone, she had 12 kills with zero errors – half the team's points.

Playing Through
Photo by Sandy Carson

I don't really understand how volleyball statistics are kept. Fortunately, watching Hooker, I don't have to. At her best, she keeps things stunningly simple, delivering one emphatic spike after another. Coach Jerritt Elliott was no less agog. "I have seen nothing close to that," he said after Texas closed out the match 3-1 and positioned itself to claim a No. 1 seed going into the NCAA tournament. "Twelve kills in a game to 25? Wow! Everything she touched was golden. She couldn't do anything wrong."

Perfection creates its own problems, however. After getting out of rhythm and losing the second set 21-25, Elliott knew that he couldn't keep "dipping into the same well." The Longhorns had to make some adjustments, diversifying their attack, not relying exclusively on Hooker. It was a good lesson to learn heading into the NCAA tournament, which begins today (Thursday, Dec. 4).

Playing Through
Photo by Sandy Carson

The Longhorns were in an almost identical position this time last year. Once again, they have only three losses. Once again, they're winning more than 80% of their sets. Their hitting percentage is almost identically dazzling.

Yet to my uninformed eyes, the 2007 squad was better than this year's. Keying their game to all-American setter Michelle Moriarty, they played with precision and ease, scarcely dropping a set for weeks on end – until, that is, Southern California intruded on the storybook season with a 3-0 drubbing in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament. Elliott sees some differences, as well. "For this team," he said comparing the two squads, "it hasn't come as easy. I don't know if we peaked too early last year, but it definitely went a lot smoother. This year, ever since we lost to Oklahoma, we've had our eyes opened."

National championships can't be won any other way.

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Jerritt Elliott, Destinee Hooker, University of Texas volleyball, Gregory Gymnasium

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