At the end of the collegiate volleyball season last December, Chiaka Ogbogu got on her phone.
Texas had just lost to Stanford in the NCAA championship match, a defeat that sent UT into a second straight off-season as the national runner-up. Watching the match — albeit miles and miles away from the court inside Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio — was Ogbogu, a three-time All-American sidelined by academic issues during what should have been her senior year.
After the loss, she texted some teammates and congratulated them on the season. She also made a proclamation.
“She was, like, whenever I get back, we are winning this upcoming year,” UT libero Cat McCoy said. “She just made it known that nothing was going to stop us.”
Beginning Aug. 25, Ogbogu will return to the court with a chance to back up those words. Texas’ season opener comes a year after the surprising announcement that Ogbogu, a 6-foot-2 middle blocker, would miss the 2016 season.
In an interview with the American-Statesman this week, Ogbogu did not elaborate on her academic issues. Ogbogu was not enrolled in any classes last fall so she interned with a sports marketing company and volunteered with a physical therapist. She studied Texas’ matches on TV and kept in shape by following one of the team’s workout plans.
During her elongated off-season, Ogbogu did not consider giving up a sport she began playing in middle school.
“I came into this program wanting to win a national championship so I feel like if I would not have finished that, I would have regretted that for the rest of my life,” said Ogbogu, a two-time state champion at Coppell High. “I still wanted to come back and finish what I started.”
Ogbogu earned AVCA All-America honors in each of her first three years at Texas. A force on offense, Ogbogu averaged 2.25 kills per set with a .405 hitting percentage. Those three years, Ogbogu also ranked eighth, fifth and fourth in the Big 12 in blocks.
The return of Ogbogu allows Texas to shift its lineup. Middle blocker Morgan Johnson averaged 1.28 blocks per set while she moonlighted as a “M1” last season. Longhorn coach Jerritt Elliott, however, would prefer to use the DeSoto-raised junior as a M2.
“(Ogbogu will) be arguably one of top two, maybe three middle blockers in the country and can take over any kind of match,” Elliott said. “It also gives us a true M1.”
Ogbogu rejoined the Longhorns in January. In May, she played alongside Johnson and teammates Yaazie Bedart-Ghani and Micaya White with USA Volleyball’s collegiate national team that traveled to Thailand. Ogbogu did not appear in any of UT’s spring matches so her next game in a Longhorns uniform will come this month at No. 12 Florida.
A Final Four qualifier in each of the past five years, Texas opens this season as the top-ranked team in the AVCA poll. Ogbogu, White and senior Ebony Nwanebu have all earned All-America accolades in their careers, and Texas signed the nation’s top recruiting class. McCoy, who is within reach of Texas’ all-time digs record, will anchor the back row.
“Our coaches really stress how this team is the most talented and deepest team we’ve had in a while,” Ogbogu said. “It will just be exciting to see how it all comes together. It’s going to be crazy competitive, but in my opinion, that’s what makes practices more fun.”
Ogbogu said her teammates did “a really good job of not really being weird or judgmental,” and she quickly fit back in upon her return. In fact, she will serve as one of UT’s captains. Nwanebu, a longtime friend who lives with Ogbogu, described her roommate as a quick-witted master of the side-eye who brings a “calm urgency everywhere she goes.”
Off the court, Ogbogu enjoys traveling. She has recently journeyed to Italy, Paris, London and Turks and Caicos, and she ventured to Los Angeles to visit Nwanebu while her former club teammate was playing at USC. The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, Ogbogu has been to her parent’s homeland twice. With Texas’ volleyball team, Ogbogu has traveled to Final Fours in Seattle, Oklahoma City and Omaha, Neb., and she picked up a silver souvenir in 2015.
Ogbogu is looking to book one additional trip in December. This year’s Final Four will be held in Kansas City, Mo.