In 30 years of Division I volleyball, the University of Texas-Pan American had just three winning seasons. When UTPA merged with the University of Texas at Brownsville to form UTRGV in 2015, former UTB Head Coach Todd Lowery took over the program, bringing with him four national championships from the NAIA level.
Since then, Lowery has created a powerhouse on the court, winning a program record 21 games a year ago and leading the team to its first Western Athletic Conference Tournament championship and NCAA Tournament berth.
When he left UTB to take the reins at UTRGV, a pair of Serbian freshmen, Bojana Mitrovic and Tina Sekulic joined him. Lowery said the two, now seniors, have been instrumental in the program’s turnaround on and off the court.
“They’re special kids in my heart,” he said. “Those kids took a chance at UTB; they knew they were coming to a program that was getting cut. They had other options, they had other places to go. They believed and trusted in me that they were going to go wherever I was going. To have that loyalty from two kids is something special. They understand what it’s like to be part of a team and part of a family.”
Sophomore middle blocker Barbara Silva goes up for a kill against Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi during the South Texas Showdown on Sept. 13 in the UTRGV Fieldhouse.
UTRGV honored the two seniors during their last regular season home match, which was a 3-0 sweep of Utah Valley University. On Senior Day, Mitrovic said she had flashbacks to when the program first started.
“I think sometimes we forget how big of a deal of what we made at this school, and how many times we’ve made history in this school,” she said. “You get caught up on winning, just getting better every day and forget about small things. We started from zero and we really came a long way together, and I cannot be more proud of what we accomplished and I’m excited about the history that we can make this year.”
The Vaqueras have already made history in 2017, posting an all-time best conference record (10-4). Now, they are out to make more history as they defend their crown as WAC tourney champs starting Thursday, and they’ll get to do it in the UTRGV Fieldhouse, where the team is a perfect 10-0 this season.
“We’ve been 10-0 at home but we’re still hungry for wins,” Mitrovic, a team co-captain said. “We’re definitely going to defend our court as best as we can and we’re going to put on a fight against whoever’s on the opposite side. We’re more than excited to host the tournament and show people what we have, because I still feel like we haven’t played our best volleyball this year.”
When UTRGV made its run to a WAC tourney title in 2016, they shocked the world as a fifth seed, knocking off the first seed and tournament host New Mexico State 3-1 in the semifinals before sweeping UVU in the championship match.
Lowery said while last year’s team did something special three nights in a row in winning the WAC crown in New Mexico, the program is excited to finally host the tournament at home after looking forward to the opportunity for two years. This season, the Vaqueras finished second in conference which earned the team a first round bye.
This has been building for three years, the momentum here at home, the fans, people coming out.
Volleyball Head Coach
“This has been building for three years, the momentum here at home, the fans, people coming out,” he said. “We got a great group of girls that do a lot. We felt like with the recruiting cycle and where we were at, that this was a good year to host the WAC Tournament because we had a lot of pieces right coming into this season and we had seven new ones, so it was just going to take time putting them together. It’s definitely gonna ratchet up a little bit of pressure, so it’s good we’re getting behind here and having to respond, because there’s going to be pressure here come November.”
On the court, UTRGV has battled adversity, spending almost the first two weeks of the season on the road due to travel issues stemming from Hurricane Harvey. Even so, Mitrovic has posted 12 double-doubles this season and is second on the team in kills behind junior Ragni Steen Knudsen. With fellow returners, sophomore Barbara Silva and junior Dubravka Vukoja, playing significant roles on the team alongside the leadership of c0-captain Alexandra Ecker, the Vaqueras are in good position to repeat as WAC Tournament champions.
The addition of junior transfer Gysell Zayas and freshman Veronika Jandova have been bright spots who blended right in with Lowery’s system.
“We’ve been good here for a while and it’s because we have good girls,” he said. “The girls have connected with people around campus, they’ve connected with kids in the community, and when there’s a crowd in the stands and they’re cheering for you, it’s like a seventh person. When we bid for the WAC Tournament, we felt like this was our year to do something special and we’re happy to have it here at home and with a great opportunity.”
The first round of WAC Tournament action is slated to begin in the UTRGV Fieldhouse Thursday at 4:30 p.m. The No. 2 UTRGV has a first round bye and is set to take the court 7 p.m. Friday against the winner of No. 3 Utah Valley University and No. 6 Universitiy of Missouri-Kansas City. No. 1 New Mexico State’s first round match begins at 4:30 p.m. Friday. The championship match is set to begin 7 p.m. Saturday.
Silva, who has set a career high in kills and digs in 2017, said the team is ready for its shot to defend the WAC Tournament Championship in front of the home crowd inside the UTRGV Fieldhouse.
“When we play home, it’s just another feeling with the energy here,” she said. “It gives us a lot of confidence, but it also is a little bit of pressure. I think we can convert that into excitement, so we’re just going to come here and we want to put on a really good show. So, I think it’s going to be great for us.”
Senior right side hitter Bojana Mitrovic strikes a ball past the California State University, Bakersfield defense on Oct. 14 in the UTRGV Fieldhouse. UTRGV won the match 3-1.
Transportation will be provided for UTRGV students in Brownsville who want to attend Friday’s match. The shuttle bus will leave on Friday from Casa Bella on the Brownsville campus at 5 p.m.
Transportation will be provided for UTRGV students in Brownsville to attend Friday’s match. Space is limited and will be reserved on a first come, first serve basis. Students can RSVP their spot on the shuttle by clicking here.
The shuttle bus will leave on Friday from Casa Bella in Brownsville at 5 p.m.
All students must sign the UTRGV Release and Indemnification Agreement Form found here. The form must be signed and returned to the Student Involvement Office in Brownsville by Thursday at 5 p.m. Fans are required to bring all proper documentation necessary to engage in travel.
You can follow along with the UTRGV Volleyball Team and WAC Tournament action at utrgvrider.com or on Facebook @utrgvrider.