HATTIESBURG, Mississippi - The Miners are surviving and advancing for the first time in 13 years.
UTEP volleyball (10-6, 8-4 C-USA) defeated Marshall (10-5, 8-4 C-USA) in straight-sets in the Conference USA Tournament Quarterfinals Thursday afternoon in Hattiesburg, Ms., for the program’s first postseason victory since 2008.
The Miners are now riding a five-match winning streak, all coming in straight-sets, for the first time since 1988.
When UTEP recorded the match point in the third set, junior Kristen Fritsche was left speechless.
“I was so happy,” Fritsche said. “This is my life. I love to play this game. It really means a lot to me that we’re making history here at UTEP.”
Her eyes watered as she stared at teammate and fellow junior Serena Patterson.
The two have seen the program at its lowest of lows their freshman seasons in 2018, finishing the year with a 5-21 record.
Now, they are achieving accomplishments that no Miner team has sniffed in roughly ten years.
To put it simply, Fritsche and Patterson have become winners.
“It feels good just knocking things off our bucket list,” Patterson said. “Last year, we made the tournament and got knocked out the first round. Now, we’re here. We’re just surviving and advancing.”
Patterson said a reason behind the Miners’ ascension to the top of the conference – and its victory versus the Thundering Herd today – is UTEP’s ability for multiple attackers to score.
Head coach Ben Wallis’s “six-headed dragon” is the most vicious it has been all season, recording its top-three hitting percentages of the season three matches in a row.
“This year, we’re all bought-in,” Patterson said. “All of us have enough skill on the floor to put the ball down. We don’t have to rely on just one person to get it done. It makes it much easier to compete.”
Today, the Miners hit for .385 against Marshall libero Sarah Schank – the C-USA Libero of the Year – and middle blocker Destiny Leon who ranks second in the conference in blocks per set.
UTEP’s 57 kills were the most by any C-USA team in three sets this season.
The UTEP dragon’s meanest bite – lone First Team All-Conference selection senior outside hitter Cheyenne Jones – hit only two kills on nine swings in the first set.
But two other heads – outside hitters Ava Palm and Paulina Pérez Rosas – combined for 13 kills, five and eight, respectively, on 19 swings.
“Most of the time, when you take a First Team All-Conference player off anybody’s team and they struggle, (they) usually don’t have a great opportunity to win,” Wallis said. “That’s what’s special about this group.”
The Miners went on to record 17 kills in the first frame – their lowest of the match.
But UTEP’s most impressive point was recorded on defense.
Redshirt sophomore outside hitter Alianza Darley denied an attack with a one handed, no-look solo block to give the Miners a 16-15 advantage and the lead for the rest of the set.
“I was just standing there,” said Fritsche who was directly behind Darley. “I didn’t know how to react it was awesome. I’m really proud of her.”
In the second set, UTEP trailed by as much as six, down 16-10.
“The big turning point in the match was when we were down… in the second set,” Wallis said. “We made a big defensive effort – we blocked a couple balls, got a couple aces – and we won that set coming back big.”
Marshall held its lead deep into the frame with a four-point advantage with two more points left at 23-19 to even the match at a set apiece.
But the Miners compiled a 6-0 run with Pérez Rosas at the service line to take their first lead since the 4-3 mark in the set.
Two-and-a-half of Patterson’s three points in the frame came in three of UTEP’s final five points.
Palm had six of her 11 kills in the set as well. Freshman setter Hande Yetis assisted on eight of the Miners kills and finished the set with a match-best .667 assist percentage.
Yetis and Fritsche helped the Miners to 19 kills in the second frame.
The two setters recorded a collective .529 assist percentage with 47 assists and only one setting error.
“(Yetis and Fritsche) deserve so much praise for what they’re doing,” Wallis said. “I know our players love them to death. But our setters were marvelous.”
The third set came around with the Miners up two and on the verge of a straight-set sweep. It was the fifth time in two weeks UTEP found itself in this situation.
“In the third, you could feel it,” Wallis said. “You could feel it was time to make our move and finish that match. We were just operating on all cylinders.”
Patterson scored six of her team-high 14 kills and Darley was a perfect 5-for-5 on kills and swings in the last set.
Once again, UTEP topped its season-best set kill total with 21 in the final frame. Twenty-one.
NEXT UP FOR THE MINERS
UTEP volleyball looks to continue #KeepMakingHistory tomorrow at 12 p.m. MT in the Reed Green Coliseum in search of its first victory over a ranked opponent in program history in (1E) No. 19 Western Kentucky and its first berth into the final round of a conference tournament since 1984 when the Miners were in the Oil Country Athletic Conference.