The UTEP volleyball team will begin its quest to return to the Conference USA Championships when the 2017 season kicks off this weekend in Denton, Texas at the North Texas Invitational.
The team was originally scheduled to play in the I-10 Cardinals Classic, hosted by Incarnate Word, in San Antonio, Texas, but the tournament was cancelled due to the incoming Hurricane Harvey bearing down on the South Texas region.
The team was able to join the Invitational on Friday morning because Prairie View A&M withdrew from the tournament due to Hurricane Harvey. The Miners will meet with Montana at 6 p.m. (MT) on Friday, followed by a Saturday show-down with longtime former Western Athletic Conference and Conference USA foe Tulsa. First serve against the Hurricane is set for 10 a.m. (MT).
“We’re so thankful to North Texas for including us in their tournament,” UTEP head coach Holly Watts said. “We’re excited to get on the court.”
Both matches will be played at the North Texas Volleyball Center. Live Stats
MONTANA SCOUTING REPORT
Series: Montana is 2-0 all-time against UTEP, but the meetings came in 1983 and in 2003. In 2003 the Grizzlies topped the Miners, 3-1, in a neutral-site match-up (9/12/03) as part of the UMKC Kangaroo Classic.
Montana brought back five starters and eight letter winners overall from last year’s squad that forged a record of 5-21, including 2-14 to tie for 10th place in the Big Sky Conference. The Grizzlies are under the direction of first-year head coach Allison Lawrence, who is in her eighth overall year on the staff.
Junior OH Alexis Urbach is the top attacker back (231 kills) but Sophomore OH Missy Huddleston (195), junior Cassie Laramee (154) and Mykaela Hammer (143) also had 140+ kills in 2016. Sophomore S Ashely Watkins is the leading returnee for both assists (382) and digs (174).
TULSA SCOUTING REPORT
Series: The longtime former WAC and C-USA rivals will be locking up for the first time since 2013 when Tulsa edged UTEP, 3-2, in El Paso (11/15/13). The Miners hold a 28-24 advantage in the series, which dates to 1983, including a 101-92 cushion in games played.
GOLDEN HURRICANE NOTABLES
Tulsa is under the direction of fourth-year head coach and alum Ryan Wills, who returned two starters and seven letter winners overall from last year’s squad that forged an overall record of 19-13. The Golden Hurricane finished 8-12 in American Athletic Conference action to secure seventh place in the league. Junior OH/MB Rachel Moore paced the squad in blocks in 2016, including the fifth-highest single-season block assist total (103) in program history.
Junior OH Emily Thorson is the top attacker back; she finished at 1.65 kills per set last season to pace all returners. Thorson will be counted on to help replace Erica Bohannon, who was a three-time first-team all-conference honoree. Also back is sophomore S Mariah Pardo, who was second on the squad with 561 assists.
Fellow classmate DS/L placed fourth on the team with 289 digs in 2016, including 12 matches with at least 10.
EXPERIENCED TEAM RETURNS
Nine of the 13 players on UTEP’s roster are returning players, while the Miners add four freshmen to the mix. There is a level of competitive depth to this program, thanks in large part to smart and consistent recruiting.
ANALYZING THE DEPTH
UTEP has the most depth in the outside position with a total of five outside hitters. Junior Ashley Grzebeniak is the only returning upperclassman, bringing two years of experience and coming off a 148-kill season.
The Miners will also be loaded with sophomores Macey Austin, who was named to the 2016 Conference USA All-Freshman, and El Paso native Briana Arellano. In 2016, Austin started in 21 of 30 matches and led the team in kills (280) while Arellano saw action in 29 matches, starting in 14 contests.
Also returning is sophomore Ali Vidali, who has one year of experience and is continuing to develop as a player after appearing in 49 sets. Joining the group will be freshman Cheyenne Jones. The 6-foot-1 Missoula, Montana native brings tremendous size and power and is anticipated to make an immediate impact to the team.
At the middle blocker position, the Miners return juniors Kylie Baumgartner and Maddie Morgan and add freshman Mallory Yost.
Baumgartner brings two years of experience and once again led the Miners in blocks with 111 total (18s/93a) in 2016. Morgan also has two years under her belt, knocking down 102 kills and tallying 30 total blocks last season.
Yost adds size to the position at 6-foot-1 and should see plenty of playing time as the Miners work to develop her to the collegiate-level pace. She finished her high school career with 816 kills at a .377 hitting efficiency, 182 digs, 151 blocks (56s/95a), 11 assists and nine service aces.
Senior Amanda King will fill the void left with Lindsey Larson’s departure. The senior, who transferred to UTEP last season from Palm Beach State, made 25 starts in 30 matches and dished out 371 assists at a 3.28 average assists per set. As a six-rotation player, King also registered 192 digs, 18 kills, 14 service aces and 32 points.
Joining King will be freshman Sahara Martinez. The newcomer from La Verne, Calif., totaled 1,987 assists throughout her high school career and will help King in the rotation.
On defense, UTEP returns sophomore Niki Cebak, who brings one year of experience after taking the court for 29 matches with 10 starting appearances. Cebak registered 150 digs in 2016 and will be joined by senior Dania Orozco.
The El Paso native transferred to UTEP last season from New Mexico Military Institute and saw action in 23 matches, accumulating 50 digs. Freshman newcomer Abby Adams will join the group. The trio will work to fill Sarah Villa’s spot, who, as the starting libero in 2016, recorded 553 digs at 4.89 digs per set to lead Conference USA.
2016 SEASON QUICK RECAP
The 2016 season was a year of growth for a young Miner squad. The team clinched its first Conference USA Championships bid in two years thanks to a four-game winning streak that ran from Oct. 30 to Nov. 6.
The Miners grabbed the eighth seed in the championships, but ultimately fell to eventual 2016 Conference USA Champion WKU in three sets. The Miners ended the season with a 8-22 overall, 5-9 conference record.
The season did not go with accolades, however, as seniors Lindsey Larson and Sarah Villa were named to the C-USA Second Team and Macey Austin was named to the All-Freshman team. Larson was also honored for her outstanding work in the classroom, being named to the C-USA All-Academic Team.
The UTEP volleyball team will look to build on the 2016 season when its 29-match schedule begins on Aug. 25. Thirteen home matches, including two home tournaments, will take place in Memorial Gym this fall.
UTEP will open the year with 14 non-conference matches, including Texas Tech and New Mexico, before Conference USA play begins September 22 and will have the goal of returning to the Conference USA Championships come November.
UTEP fans will get their first look at the team, which returns 2016 Conference USA All-Freshman Team selection Macey Austin, Kylie Baumgartner, and El Paso’s own Briana Arellano, on Aug. 30 against Big 12’s Texas Tech in the historic Memorial Gym. The team will then host back-to-back tournaments, the Glory Road Invitational (Sept. 1-2) and the Borderland Invitational (Sept. 8-10).
The Glory Road Invitational will bring New Mexico, Youngstown State and North Dakota to the Sun City and the Borderland Invitational will feature Samford, Delaware State and Abilene Christian.
The Interstate-10 rivalry match against NM State will go down in Las Cruces on Sept. 19 at 7 p.m. and the Miners will kick start Conference USA play three days later with a two-game home stand beginning on Sept. 22 at 6 p.m. against Rice in Memorial Gym and closing out with a Sunday match up against UAB at noon. Fans will then get to catch the team again at home Oct. 13 and 15 when they meet up with North Texas and UTSA at 6 p.m. and noon, respectively.
The team will return two weeks later to host LA Tech (Oct. 27) and Middle Tennessee (Oct. 29) to close out the month. The last home match will be against Marshall on Nov. 8 at 6 p.m.
HITTING THE BOOKS
UTEP proved they were hitting the books as hard as the volleyballs when they were announced as a recipient of the 2016-17 American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Team Academic Award in July. The award honors teams who have matched their dedication to the sport of volleyball with excellence in the classroom.
The award, which was initiated in the 1992-93 academic year, honors collegiate and high school volleyball teams that displayed excellence in the classroom during the school year by maintaining at least a 3.30 cumulative team grade-point average on a 4.0 scale. The AVCA Team Academic Award, celebrating its 25th year, is the single largest award offered by quantity of schools, players and coaches honored.
Since the 2000-2001 season, the number of recipients have increased every single year but two, while amassing a 532 team increase over the span of the last decade. Since the award’s inception in 1993, the amount of award winners has increased from 62 to its current number of 822.
Three Miners were recognized by Conference USA for their efforts during the 2016 campaign. Lindsey Larson and Sarah Villa, both seniors last season, were named to the C-USA Second Team while Macey Austin earned a spot on the C-USA All-Freshman Team. Larson concluded her collegiate career as UTEP’s all-time leader in assists (2,677), service aces (71), total blocks (317) and block assists (292) while ranking second on the list in assists per set (6.17).
Larson was also honored for her outstanding dedication in the classroom after being named to the Conference USA All-Academic Team for the third time.
She sported a 3.93 GPA in civil engineering and was a regular member to UTEP’s Dean List and the C-USA Commissioner’s Academic Medalist list. Larson started in all 82 sets and is the only one in the league to notch a triple-double in 2016. Larson has registered a total of five triple-doubles on the season and 15 total double-doubles, the second-most in C-USA. Villa made her way to the list after denting the school record books for digs (1,369) and digs per set (3.71).
Villa also holds the conference record for most digs in a match with 45. After a breakout year, Austin was named to the All-Freshman team and led the Miners in kills (280) and kills per set (2.64). With three years of collegiate eligibility left, Austin already ranks 10th on UTEP’s all-time kills list and fifth for kills per set. Austin will be anticipated to lead the Miners on the front court.
Though 11 of 12 players were named to the Conference USA Commissioner’s Honor Roll, three secured C-USA Commissioner’s Academic Medals for maintaining a GPA of 3.75 or greater. Lindsey Larson, Macey Austin and Briana Arellano received the medal, Larson for the third time and Austin and Arellano for the first.
Larson was also named to the C-USA All-Academic team. The three were also starters for the Miners.
EL PASO’S VERY OWN
The 2017 roster features two players from El Paso—defensive specialist Dania Orozco and outside hitter Briana Arellano. Orozco is a 2014 Americas High School graduate and joined the team last season after transferring from New Mexico Military Institute, where she played for two years.
The senior tallied 50 total digs last season and added a service ace and an assist. Arellano is a 2016 graduate from Canutillo High School and found immediate success as a freshman on the UTEP squad, knocking down 95 kills and picking up 220 digs, making her the leading defensive returner for the Miners.
After a breakout rookie year, sophomore Macey Austin will be anticipated to continue her dominance at the net. Austin led the team in kills (280) and racked up 2.64 kills per set in 106 sets played as a freshman last season.
She also registered double-digit kills in 14 matches including a season-best 18 kills twice. For her efforts, Austin was named to the 2016 Conference USA All-Freshman Team. The six-foot Keller, Texas native ranks 10th on UTEP’s all-time list for kills.
RETURN TO THE ‘SHIP
The Miners earned a spot at the Conference USA Championships for the first time in two years last season, a feat they look to repeat in 2017. The team earned the eighth and final spot for the tournament, which paired them with top-seeded and eventual champion WKU, who swept the Miners.
A year of experience later, however, the team now knows what it takes to make the tournament and what to expect. The Orange and Blue will return nine letterwinners from last year’s championship-bid team, including seven who saw action at the tournament.
FILLING THE VOID
Three key players, Lindsey Larson, Sarah Villa and Tatum Winter, were lost due to graduation. The Miners will now reload this year to fill the void. Senior Amanda King, who transferred to UTEP last season, will take over Larson’s setter position. King dished out 371 assists in 113 sets and added 18 kills and will look to add more in her leadship role.
Niki Cebak and Dania Orozco will be in line to fill the libero spot left from Villa. Cebak played in 96 sets and picked up 150 digs, while Orozco played in 41 sets and tallied 50 digs. Abby Adams, a freshman, will also be in the runnings. Winter, a middle blocker, got help from juniors Kylie Baumgartner and Maddie Morgan.
Baumgartner led the team in blocks for the second straight year with 111 (18s/93a) and Morgan added 30 to the mix. The pair will be joined by Mallory Yost, who comes to UTEP after recording 151 blocks during her high school career.