The NCAA has passed legislation adding the National Invitational Volleyball Championship as a permanent season-ending event for volleyball – Triple Crown Sports brought the event back to life in 2017 and has seen the programs from Ole Miss, Iowa State, Georgia Tech and UNLV claim an NIVC title. The 2022 event will launch with selection night on Nov. 27, with the championship match slated for Dec. 12 or 13.
By Kyle Koso
Expectations can weigh heavily on a volleyball team, either way you look at it.
For the UTEP program, the old days were haunted thanks to a rough profile, evidenced by a 34-111 (.234) record from 2014-18 that drove a change at the top and the hiring of Ben Wallis as head coach. People didn’t much think about or care what the Miners were trying to do and being ignored can be very irritating in college athletics.
As the 2022 season began UTEP ended up with a curious spin on wrestling with history, trying to unleash its capabilities while still semi-obsessing over a 2021 season that saw them win 24 matches and make a run to the NIVC semifinals. That effort spawned the inevitable (and nagging) follow-up question, can you do it again?
The pressure certainly landed hard early, hitting maximum velocity when the Miners lost three straight five-set matches in three days – at their own tournament – including final set scores of 20-18 (New Mexico) and 17-15 (South Dakota). But the resilience of the program has been the more relevant story with UTEP (10-7) starting the Conference USA schedule at 4-0 and fully engaged to take on No. 22 Rice (14-1, 4-0 C-USA) on Saturday for an early foothold in the league standings.
“I knew we could be .500 at the end of preseason and still have a chance to win this conference. I did not expect us to just turn around, however, and win 24 matches like we did last year,” said Wallis, who did some aggressive tweaking of the lineup that brought in intriguing freshmen and asked veterans to work with the changes. “I knew it would be tougher, but I didn’t think we’d falter on match point on all three of those matches … that was a heartbreaking stretch, for our team and our psyche. And we had a hangover over the next couple weekends, just faltering and trying to figure out our identity.
“We sat down, got real with each other, said don’t feel sorry for yourselves. Our record’s bad, but we need to be competing better and being better offensively, for sure. We were functioning well, just not scoring, and that was our calling card last year. We started grinding at practice through the offense stuff, and we’ve gotten on a roll. Winning cures all, your confidence starts to grow, you’re more excited to get to work every day instead of thinking about five-set losses. Anytime you are starting five freshmen, you’re going to have ups and downs.”
With two five-set wins in C-USA play already, UTEP appears to have landed on the right approach. Grad student Serena Patterson (team-high 176 kills) and senior Alianza Darley (91 total blocks) were preseason all-conference honorees and have decoded the routes that allowed newcomers to thrive. Freshman outside Sara Pustahija (168 kills, team-high 31 aces) and setter Mattie Gantt look wise beyond their years, and the offense is getting a huge boost from redshirt freshman Torrance Lovesee (162 kills), who has earned C-USA offensive player of the week honors on two occasions.
“We had young pieces I thought would help us function more dangerously against the teams we need to beat at the end of the year. You’re trying to build the roster and a lineup to win not just right now but to win at the end of the year, when it’s most important,” Wallis said. “It all put a lot of pressure on Serena and Alianza to perform better than last year, pressure they put on themselves, and it didn’t go well. We took the pressure off, told them they don’t need to be world-beaters, just do their job and be competitive, because the young players can do the job. They recognize it … and it’s been cool because the veterans look around and see yeah, we can be better than last year. The record won’t be better, but we can win at a higher level.
“Expectations are high, people think it’s a team that should be pretty good, and we are. It just looks different. Any program that has a target on their back, the hardest thing is recreating it. We used to be picked to be dead last … it’s one thing to be the doormat and work your way to the top versus having an expectation and executing that. Winning programs need to get how to deal with that.”
The Miners (who ranks third in all of D-I in total aces) will certainly get tested in the next week or so, hosting Rice on Saturday and also taking on No. 25 Western Kentucky (16-2, 4-0) at home on Oct. 16. UTEP will play five of its first six C-USA games on its home floor. Wallis added that the team is about to get a major reinforcement in junior Vittoria Price, who has been out several weeks with a broken finger and may be available as soon as Saturday.
“We run two setters, with four attackers at any given time,” he said. “We are hitting over .300 in the last six matches, against good opponents, and we are starting to be that six-headed monster.”
LAST WORD – Wallis on the significant boost his program enjoyed when the Miners accepted an NIVC bid last year, making that impressive run to the final four:
“The NIVC experience for my team was invaluable. I’m glad the NCAA has sanctioned in as a postseason tournament; getting your female student-athletes in the most exciting sport in the country and the fastest-growing sport, that opportunity to play in the postseason and go after a championship is a big deal. The NIVC provided a special environment, on the road but for sure at home. Our city fell in love with the team, 3,500-3,600 people at our games, and I’ll never forget what it felt like watching the team run out of the locker room into that scene. The gym hadn’t looked like that since the 1960s when the basketball team used to play there. To play good volleyball against really good teams at the end of the year, it’s a no-brainer. You’ve got a meaningful reason for teams that miss out on an at-large NCAA big to play in it and try to win it. That’s what we are looking for.”