Photo by Andres Acosta / El Paso Herald-Post
The 2019 UTEP Volleyball campaign began with a first-year coaching staff looking to spark a turnaround that Miners fans quickly learned would occur much faster than expected.
Head coach Ben Wallis and Co. put together the best turnaround by a first-year staff in program history by taking the Miners from a five-win season in 2018 to a win total of 13 matches in 2019.
The Orange and Blue experienced a season unlike any in quite some time. The Miners made the conference tournament for the first time in three seasons, and had their highest finish in the conference standings since the 2012 campaign.
“In a number of ways, I feel like our city, our administration, university, support staff, families and people who were around the program that knew what we were facing have been unbelievably supportive,” Wallis said. “When I look at our season, I am very pleased and proud of what we did with this group, considering the state of the program when we took over. To get to 13 wins against the schedule that we had is a success from where our program started.
“I am proud of what we put out there and the way we reshaped our program. We turned this team in to a team that expects to win and not just keep it close. At one point against Rice in the conference tournament, I looked at my players in a timeout and I saw a look in their eyes that they knew they could win.”
Additionally, UTEP also made a monster leap in the national RPI rankings. It was ranked 249 at the end of last season out of over 330 teams. The 2019 season saw a jump of more than 100 spots into the top 150.
The Miners won seven matches in non-conference play, which was one more than the last two seasons combined. This marked the first time the program posted a non-conference record above .500 since 2011.
Wallis and the Miners also boasted a winning record at home with a 6-3 mark in historic Memorial Gym. The 6-3 record on their home floor was the first winning record in the Sun City since 2013 when UTEP posted an identical .667 home winning percentage.
“Our home attendance was something I was most proud of this season,” Wallis noted. “Our home attendance moved us into third in the conference in average attendance. That makes me extremely proud to know that in the better part of six months we were able to get the city of El Paso excited about our team. Having everyone there also helped us win some games. We went 6-3 at home and gave people major issues when they played here. We beat two Top 100 teams on our home floor with a roster of kids with very little experience in those games. I am hopeful that this will continue to be a tough place for teams to play in the future.”
Individually, Cheyenne Jones made significant improvements to her game under Wallis. The junior became just the fifth player in UTEP history to earn second team All-Conference USA accolades. Over the course of the 2019 season, Jones posted career highs in kills (259), hitting percentage (.242), total blocks (74) and points (303).
UTEP’s Mallory Yost also enjoyed a career season, posting personal bests in kills (198) and total blocks (90), while the junior also increased her hitting percentage by hitting .324 for the year.
The Miners also made history with the number of weekly awards handed out by the conference office. Irbe Lazda became the first player in program history to be named C-USA Freshman of the Week, while Serena Patterson was the first C-USA Offensive Player of the Week from UTEP since 2013.
“To be able to get Cheyenne on the all-conference team, and to have Serena and Irbe win conference player of the week was great,” Wallis stated. “We had several all-tournament team participants, and getting into seventh place in the conference after being 12th last year shows a significant amount of improvement.”
During the conference tournament, the Miners took a set off the No. 21 team in the nation in the Rice Owls. It marked the first set victory over a ranked opponent since 2001.
Looking ahead to the 2020 campaign, Wallis and the Miners will enter the season with a more experienced roster as UTEP returns 12 players who saw action on the floor a season ago, including Jones, Lazda and Patterson.
For complete coverage of UTEP Volleyball, be sure to follow the Miners on social media at @UTEPVB (Instagram) and @UTEP_VB (Twitter) or visit the official home of UTEP Athletics at UTEPMiners.com.