Longhorn Volleyball Fans Fuel Team’s Success
By Kevin Malcolm
Since 1974, the University of Texas at Austin’s volleyball team has won three national championships, made 13 Final Fours and accumulated 26 conference titles. The team is one of the best in the country.
The success of Texas volleyball can be attributed to having great players and coaches, of course, but the team has a secret weapon — a singularly engaged and active fanbase.
Volleyball games in the 4,000-seat Gregory Gymnasium, a 90-year-old building in the heart of the UT campus, are regularly packed — not a common occurrence for many college volleyball teams around the country.
The intimate gym setup — bleachers filled with passionate fans only a few feet away from players — creates an intense atmosphere.
Loel Graber, 68, could be considered the godfather of Texas volleyball fans. Graber has attended every home game since 1982, he said.
Graber didn’t attend UT but moved to Austin in 1978 for a job during a technology boom. A friend knew Graber loved playing volleyball and invited him to a UT game a few years later. He was hooked.
In 1982, the team struggled to get 500 fans at games, Graber said, but that number grew season after season. “We built it and kept it,” Graber said.
The commitment of the Texas volleyball coaches to recruit good student-athletes with good personalities make it “easy to create a community based on respect,” Graber said.
During one of the first games Graber attended, he met fellow volleyball superfan and UT professor Reuben McDaniel. McDaniel, who died in 2016, was such a devoted supporter of volleyball and women’s athletics at UT that the university named an award after him. It is presented to a deserving non-scholarship athlete every year.
McDaniel’s devotion to Texas volleyball in part inspired Graber to keep attending games, Graber said.
Texas volleyball games also attract a large and devoted group of UT students.
Most game nights, a student group called the Hellraisers eagerly waits on the steps of Gregory Gym, sometimes an hour before the doors open, dressed in white T-shirts with their faces painted orange and white, ready to cheer on the Horns.
Whether only 30 members can make it or as many as 75, the group is always loud, said Alex Sherwood, a 20-year-old UT student and Hellraiser.
“When (the game) is packed with 4,000 fans, it is absolutely deafening,” Sherwood said. “There are so many times I have left the game with my ears just ringing.”
Fans bond with volleyball players, in part, because they sit only a few feet away from the court, and the proximity creates a special intimacy, Sherwood said.
Longhorn player Skylar Fields, 20, says she and the team appreciate the fans’ passion. Fields said that she loves playing in front of a packed gym with a crowd right on top of the court and that it really gives the team a home-court advantage.
The team works to be involved with the community — attending youth volleyball camps, giving out candy during Halloween and taking time to talk with young fans after games and during presentations at schools. “We actually want to build relationships with the kids,” Fields said.
The 2020 season brought success on the court — the Longhorns lost in the national championship match to Kentucky — but it was rough for the fans. COVID-19 restrictions led to smaller crowds. Attendance fell from close to 4,000 to 970 fans each game.
This fall, the Longhorns were back playing in front of a packed gym and rabid fans. They finished the regular season with a 24-1 record, won a fifth consecutive Big 12 championship and secured a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Graber’s excited about the Longhorns chances in the postseason, and there’s no place he would rather be than in the stands. “I’ll be here for the rest of the year,” Graber said.