By Nathaniel Mata | SPORTS EDITOR
A strong start is crucial in every sport. A few decisive road wins and solid performances in early tournament play certainly helps as well. UTRGV volleyball accomplished all that and more in its opening weekend during the Baylor Invitational in Waco.
Matched with host Baylor University in its season opener, volleyball did something that hasn’t been done by any UTPA/UTRGV women’s team since the NCAA started to govern women’s sports–beat a Big 12 Conference opponent.
The Vaqueros’ win over Baylor sparked a first-place finish in the tournament. The win serves as a huge boost and Head Coach Todd Lowery knows the effects can be long lasting.
“It is a huge win for the program, not just this groupof girls,” Lowery said during practice. “The kids start to believe. The community starts to build like we’ve been selling a process for the last year and a half. To get there in the short amount of time that we have to knock off a team like Baylor is big for us and it gives us strength in recruiting.”
The Vaqueros beat the Bears 3-1. The set scores were 25-23, 20-25, 28-26, 25-21.
Senior outside hitter Alisha Watson had a strong game that evening, racking up a career-high 23 kills. Also contributing to the offense was fellow outside hitter and sophomore Ragni Knudsen with 10 kills; she also recorded 13 digs. Junior setter Tina Sekulic was the facilitator of the offense, assisting 47 times during the upset victory.
Lowery also said he “hadn’t seen a defensive game out of [Sekulic] like that in the two years he has coached her.”
Watson, who is starting her fourth season with the team, said she hopes this season all the pieces fit together.
“With a lot of new players, I think it’s really good to be successful early because we’ve always been told we have a lot of the right pieces, and just seeing that actually come into play, we practice for so long,” said Watson, a Round Rock native. “I think having those great results early is a great indicator we’re going in the right direction.”
UTRGV lost its next match in five sets against Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. The team was, however, able to beat Prairie View A&M University in its tournament finale in straight sets.
The 3-0 win was important because sets were used to determine a tournament champion. UTRGV’s eight set wins and only four set losses gave it first place.
The Vaqueros’ two standouts were recognized for their play in North Texas. Bojana Mitrovic was awarded “Best Attacker,” while Alisha Watson was named WAC Player of the Week on Aug. 29.
Success on the road is also vital for the team as it spends its first 13 matches away. Lowery, who is at UTRGV for his second season, is ready to apply what he learned from traveling last season.
“For us, what we learned last year as a staff, in the WAC it’s really who can manage travel best,” Lowery said. “Who can manage the odd serve and pass times, the odd lunch times. To be up there and go up on the road and get a win, that just kind of sets the tone for the season.”
UTRGV will compete in a total of four tournaments before conference play starts. The team will travel to New Orleans, Lubbock and Boca Raton, Fla.
The first time the Vaqueros will be in front of the home crowd will be Sept. 20 when they host Prairie View A&M.