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Following through UTRGV with eyes toward the prize

BY Nathaniel Mata | SPORTS EDITOR

There’s little time to stop and smell the flowers in the midst of the best start in volleyball D1 program history. Sightseeing and patting each other on the back doesn’t build toward a Western Athletic Conference crown, only more wins can do that.

An unprecedented road swing to start the season could have been the recipe to an underwhelming record. Following wins over Baylor University and Tulane University, on hostile courts, during nonconference-tournament play, it was evident this team could be special. Instead, they were 9-5 the first time they played in front of the home crowd.

To close the month of September, the Vaqueros started the WAC season with three consecutive wins, each match by 3-1 scores. UTRGV was sailing by conference foes that they hadn’t had success against in previous seasons. Star outside hitter Bojana Mitrovic had a memorable game against Seattle University in this stretch, recording 24 kills in the win.

It only took 17 games in 2016 to match 2015’s 12 total wins. UTRGV’s blazing start put the entire conference on warning.

Then came some turbulence.

The program’s first five-game winning streak since 2012 was put on the line against California State University, Bakersfield; they came up short, 1-3.

A game later, in their first test against front-runner and defending conference champions New Mexico State University, they came up short again, 1-3.

Consecutive WAC losses for a team that was rolling could have had a devastating effect on Todd Lowery’s squad. It set up for a rivalry match with big implications on how the season would continue in their next appearance.

Last Tuesday, UTRGV hosted Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi in a nonconference match with postseason intensity. It was the third and final meeting this year between the two teams that have met 38 times before.

UTRGV’s win in the maxi sets marked not only the first win over TAMU-CC this season, and it was also the first time UTRGV/UTPA had defeated the Islanders since the 2007 season. A 17-match losing streak came to an end that players and coaches described as a “monkey on their back.”

Breakout seasons from individuals all over the court have contributed to the 14-7 record.

Sophomore Rangi Knudsen is one of those having a breakout year, recording her third match of 20 kills or more. She said the whole team deserves praise.

“It makes us better, this game we played as a team and we won as a team so it made us better,” Knudsen said. “I feel ready. We worked so hard this season and we’ve come so far.”

Coach Lowery implied that it would help build momentum for their next set of conference games.

“I think this is great going into this weekend. We had kind of a rough couple days on the road in the WAC, some ups and downs with the team,” Lowery said. “I thought practice was great on Monday and it carried into today.”It is still too early to tell the long-term impact of the home victory over the Islanders. But the Vaqueros did intend to use the win over a strong opponent as a motivation.

Four-year senior Alisha Watson drew plenty of positives from midseason tilt. She said adjustments after losing matches, or within matches during stretches of poor play is a product of hard work.

“It’s a good testament of how we come back from losses. It just shows that all the work we’ve been putting in and adjustments that we’ve made to our game to improve,” the Round Rock native said. “It’s really hard to play teams in the middle of the season. Everyone’s getting film and making adjustments to you, so you gotta work that much harder.”

Coach Lowery said the second half of WAC, which begins Oct. 20, will provide not only a challenge but also an opportunity to play tough foes for a second time.

“We got some tough ones coming up still,” Lowery said. “We played really well against Seattle and Utah Valley here; those are going to be tough games on the road. On the flip side of that, we are excited to get [Cal State] Bakersfield here on our home court.”

Watson, who is not a stranger to a long conference schedule, said that those games test the will of a team. She said being familiar against an opponent makes for hard-fought matches.

“Those games are really tough because it just comes down to effort,” Watson said. “We see these players all the time. They know what our strengths are; they know what our weaknesses are.

hoever outworks the other side, those points are just going to go their way.”

UTRGV will look to remain tough against other WAC schools as they chase undefeated New Mexico State and aim to win the conference tournament in November.

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