Middle blocker Kenidy Howard dealt an ace with the Miners up 16-14 in the third set, inching the team towards victory.
Howard celebrated accordingly, stroking her hair and pursing her lips with a facial expression that screamed, “I just did that.”
UTEP volleyball (4-3, 3-1 C-USA) went on to win the third and final set against UTSA (3-7, 2-2 C-USA) for the sweep (25-17, 25-22, 25-23) and the program’s best start to conference play since 2013 in Memorial Gym Tuesday afternoon.
“If I’m up-and-ready in the middle, I know that can help my team out especially towards the end of the game,” Howard said. “I know we got a little bit timid, but I knew that we needed (an aggressive) energy to take big swings. I’m glad that I contribute in that way for my team.”
Head coach Ben Wallis said, prior to 2021, Howard had been “a ‘hide-in-the-background’ kind of kid.”
“Everybody else is going to shine and (Howard was) just going to do (her) job,” Wallis said.
Wallis needed more out of Howard after the mid-season departures of two middle blockers and an outside hitter in December and January.
In the two UTSA matches, Howard was just as much a fixture into the Miners’ offensive attack as any outside hitter on Wallis’s self-described “pin-dominant team” with 17 kills at a .654 clip. Howard was second on the team with 9.5 points today.
“I hope (Howard) takes it personally when I say that this team is built around the pins,” Wallis said. “I want her to say, ‘You’re wrong, coach. Watch me go.’”
UTEP won the opening frame handily, 25-17, behind six service aces, three of which belonged to freshman outside hitter Ava Palm. Palm finished the match with six aces in three sets, tied for ninth-most all-time at UTEP.
After serving it 24 times on Monday, Palm was at the service line for 19 of the Miners’ points today.
“What that’s telling you is when (Palm is) serving, she’s going on runs,” Wallis said. “She consistently hits the ball at such a great pace and at such a great trajectory.”
The Miners trailed only one time in the match when the Roadrunners took the advantage, 14-13, in the second set. Howard served it three straight times as UTEP regained the lead and picked up two kills in the Miners’ last three points including the set point, 25-22.
UTEP opened the third set on a 5-0 run behind a Palm ace, two kills from Howard and one kill each from outside hitters Serena Patterson and Paulina Perez Rosas. The Miners went up 15-11 when Wallis said his team let off the gas.
“We are turning the corner as a program, but we don’t have a killer instinct yet,” Wallis said. “We were cheering too loud and being a little bit too celebratory instead of getting back to work.”
The Roadrunners evened the set at 18-18, but senior outside hitter Cheyenne Jones gave the Miners the lead for good with her eighth of nine total kills in the match off the feed from freshman Hande Yetis.
Yetis – who arrived to the United States from Izmir, Turkey, a month and a half ago – assisted on 32 kills in the two matches against UTSA. In the last of her 16 assists today, Yetis gave the Memorial Gym crowd a first glimpse into her signature celebration as she spread her arms and flew around the court.
“It’s my favorite move and (my team) knows that,” Yetis said. “Then I get the amazing point, I can’t wait. I just go flying.”
Next up, UTEP volleyball travels to Denton, Texas, to take on North Texas next Monday and Tuesday after defeating the Mean Green in an exhibition in the fall season, 3-2.
For complete coverage of UTEP Women’s Volleyball, be sure to follow the Miners on social media at @utepvb (Instagram) and @UTEP_VB (Twitter) or click here to visit the official home of UTEP Athletics.
Gallery by Ruben R. Ramirez – El Paso Herald Post