- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Once she got a physics final out of the way Monday morning, Texas outside hitter Juliann Faucette didn't have any concerns this semester other than volleyball. And is she ever glad that's still on her plate.
Whereas last season, the Longhorns were more or less expected to make it to the Final Four -- they and Penn State separated themselves from the pack -- this year, Texas was just one of the schools in the running.
The Longhorns had personnel losses they'd expected, the biggest being the amazingly talented two-sport athlete Destinee Hooker finishing her eligibility and going on to pro volleyball. But they also had unpredictable losses -- and a whole lot of them. Four players went out for the season with injuries, including sophomore outside hitter Bailey Webster. A fifth, freshman starting setter Hannah Allison, missed 12 matches with an ankle injury.
By mid-September, the Longhorns' record was 5-4, and they'd lost three consecutive matches. Admittedly, the losses were to three of the best teams in the country -- Illinois, Stanford and Florida -- and to Big 12 rival school Texas A&M. Still, the road from 5-4 to Final Four looked pretty long and arduous.
In spite of all this, though, there actually were things working in Texas' favor. Bad as the injury streak was, it all came either before the season or relatively early, and this was a Texas squad that had depth. The Longhorns also knew that if they could win two NCAA tournament matches, they would have the advantage of hosting a regional.
And they had Faucette, who would go on to win the Big 12 Player of the Year Award. She was prepared to take as many swings as she had to in order to get Texas to Kansas City, Mo.
"It was a whirlwind of emotions this season," Faucette said. "When Bailey went down, that was the start of a little bit of doubt. This was my senior year, and I didn't want to go out without making the Final Four again.
"But our team never gave up, and that's what got us through the whole season. I'm thankful to have such dedicated teammates and coaches. It's been kind of like a movie: There have been all these things we've had to persevere through. But we did it together. It's been fun to look back and see that we always knew, in the back of our minds, that we could do this."
Every top volleyball team has a "hammer," a hitter who at the most crucial moments usually finds a way to put the ball down no matter how much the defense keys on him or her. Faucette, whose father played football and whose mother was a gymnast, is that player for Texas. She's also a natural combination of leader/mediator, being the second-oldest of five daughters.
This season, more than ever, the Longhorns needed Faucette to be a rock, the one thing they could always count on. And she was, leading Texas with 3.92 kills per set.
"It's been an interesting year for everybody on our team," Faucette said. "I think a lot of teams this year were trying to figure things out, and that's what exciting about sports."
Faucette did gymnastics for many years -- "I wanted to be just like my mom" -- but as she sprouted, it became clear that gymnastics wouldn't be her sport.
"I definitely outgrew it," the 6-foot-2 Faucette said. "But I got into other sports. My dad is really competitive, and so it's cool to have conversations with him about mental toughness. My mom still has that competitive edge, too."
Her father, Chuck Faucette, is the assistant strength and conditioning coach for the St. Louis Rams. It so happens they are at home playing the Kansas City Chiefs this weekend, just four hours across the Show-Me State from the Final Four.
Chuck Faucette was drafted out of high school to play baseball by the Toronto Blue Jays, but he ended up as an All-ACC linebacker at Maryland who then played two seasons for the San Diego Chargers.
Her parents are divorced, but Juliann Faucette is close to both. She grew up with her mom in San Diego and had her pick of the best collegiate volleyball programs in California to attend. Instead, she went to the Lone Star State, where her father spent much of his coaching career -- including stints at the University of Texas -- before going to St. Louis.
"I guess I wanted to go against the grain," she said. "Most people expect California girls to stay in California and go to one of those great schools. I just really felt comfortable at Texas, though. I connected with the campus, the team, the environment. There is a Texas spirit and fight, and that's something I feed off of."
In 2007, when Faucette was national freshman of the year, Texas lost to Southern Cal in the regional final. In 2008, the Longhorns made the Final Four and had a 2-0 semifinal lead over Stanford, but lost the match. Then last year, Texas made the final against Penn State and again was up 2-0, but the Nittany Lions rallied for their third consecutive national championship.
Faucette acknowledged that loss hurt the worst -- to be a set away from an NCAA title but not get it.
"I think, especially being up 2-0, it's hard emotionally to really think of all the work it takes to get there," she said. "We only lost once all season up until that game. Knowing how much goes into getting to that point, it's difficult because you know not many teams are going to get those chances."
But the Longhorns have gotten another chance at the NCAA title after finishing second in the Big 12 and getting past two Big Ten threats -- Illinois and Purdue -- in the regional semifinals and final this past weekend.
The Longhorns had been swept by the Illini in Austin, Texas, on Sept. 3. However, when they met at Gregory Gymnasium on Friday, Texas was down 2-1 but got a 3-2 victory. Then against Purdue, it also looked as though the Longhorns were again going to be extended to five sets. But Texas fought off three set points and closed out the match by winning the fourth set 27-25. Faucette had a team-best 20 kills and 10 digs against the Boilermakers.
"We've responded all year," Faucette said. "Even when we've gotten down, it's been something we're good at. I feel in those pressure situations, that's when it's the most fun. If you don't go after it, you're going to feel bad afterward. Something switches on in me, and I go after it. I love to be in those tight games and be the go-to hitter."
Now yet another Big Ten team is next for Texas: the same foe that defeated the Longhorns in the title match last year. Penn State also has had big losses to graduation and injury, so these are different-looking teams from 2009.
But, yet again, they are both at the Final Four.
"Losing last year to them is something that's kept our motivation high all year long," Faucette said of Penn State. "Being able to see them again and possibly make up for that loss is something any team would want. We're not the same teams that we were last year, but it's a good matchup. We respect each other; I have friends on that team and it's a good, healthy rivalry."
Winning the NCAA title is, of course, Faucette's lone remaining goal in college volleyball. But even if that doesn't happen, three Final Four appearances is a pretty fantastic career. And this year's trip to the Final Four, all things considered, may be what she looks back on as her proudest achievement of all.
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.