By UTEP Zay 

Coming off of their most successful season in 2021, the UTEP volleyball team saw the departure of 8 players including stars like Kenidy Howard, Yasso Amin, and Paulina Perez Rosas. However, head coach Ben Wallis embraced the challenge of rebuilding his roster. He went out and signed what he called “the best recruiting class in UTEP history."

So far, it sure is looking like that.

UTEP brought in 8 newcomers, 6 of whom are freshmen. They returned 2 players that were sidelined due to injury last year with Hula Crisostomo and Torrance Lovesee, each of them playing a huge role this year. Of the 6 freshmen, half of them have seen consistent playing time throughout the year.

Sara Pustahija has been the most impressive of the three, as she has totaled 4 C-USA Freshman of the Week honors, the most any player has had in the conference thus far. She is currently 3rd on the team in kills, with 211, and is hitting a solid .211. She also has 39 service aces, the most on the team. She is one of only 6 players to compete in all 22 matches so far for the Miners. She has easily been one of the most valuable parts of this team.

Maddie Gant came in as the highest-rated recruit in UTEP volleyball’s history, and she has not disappointed. The setter from Aledo, Texas has a team-high 409 assists, and just recently was named co-setter of the week in Conference USA, splitting the award with teammate Hande Yetis. She also has put up 28 service aces to go along with her 122 digs, the 4th most on the team.

The final freshman who has played a big role for the Miners is Kaya Weaver, a middle blocker from Galt, California. Weaver has been outstanding at the net for the Miners, and she uses her size and length to stuff opposing players at the net. She has put up 61 total blocks, the second most behind standout Alianza Darley. She is also hitting a ridiculous .306, the second most on the team.

Now that you have met the 3 freshman stars, let’s get into the rest of UTEP’s roster and their roller coaster of a season.

If you follow UTEP volleyball, names like Alianza Darley, Vittoria Price, Serena Patterson, Hula Crisostomo, and Torrance Lovesee are already familiar to you. If you don’t, get used to hearing them because they have been the leaders of this young Miner team.

Lovesee, an outside hitter from Kansas who missed last year due to an injury, is a redshirt freshman. She has been solid for the Miners, having the second most kills for the Miners. Despite this being her first season actually playing for the Miners, she has shown strong leadership and looks to be one the key pieces for the Miners as the conference play progresses. Hula Crisostomo is the other player the Miners got back from injury this season. The former NMMI standout played for the Miners in 2020 and was a big part of that team, both on and off the court. She has been the Libero for the Miners this year and has over 340 digs. She has been a defensive standout for the Miners and is consistently making mind-blowing saves. Vittoria Price, a former Roswell and NMMI standout, has the highest hitting percentage on the team with an impressive .354 mark and has easily been the most efficient player for the Miners. She recently went 7-for-7 against UTSA. Alianza Darley, the former C-USA 2nd teamer, has had a nice season. In ten fewer games, she has already surpassed her block total from last year, and the outside hitter from Las Vegas, NM has been arguably the best player on the team so far.

And last, but certainly not least is Serena Patterson, the standout graduate from Red Oak, Texas. Last year, Patterson earned All C-USA 1st honors and was named to the Preseason Conference Team. She has the most kills on the team and has easily been the leader of this very young Miner team. When times have gotten rough this season, Patterson has stepped it up and provided a much-needed spark for this young and inexperienced group.

It hasn’t always been rainbows and sunshine for this Miner team. They struggled early on and that was partly due to the fact that they were a younger team and also because they faced very high-level competition. Those struggles were front and center when the Miners went 0-3 in the Borderland Invitational, losing to UNM, Portland State, and South Dakota. Those teams are now a combined 46-16. Wallis said he scheduled these teams like this to challenge his team, which it did.

The Miners went 5-7 to start the season. Things were rough for this team. At times, the inexperience was undeniable, and the ability to close games was just not quite there yet. With one more non-conference game left against the then 11-3 UTRGV, the Miners knew if they wanted to get their season on track, they must do it now. And that is exactly what happened. The Miners, led by Pustahija’s 16 kills, swept the Vaquero’s as conference play started.

The Miners didn't skip a beat going into conference play, starting a perfect 4-0 before falling to nationally ranked Rice in 5 sets. The Miners had put it all together against the Owls but came up just short in a tight 5-set loss. The young squad fought hard but fell 16-14 in the final set. The inexperience was not as obvious as it once was, and the Miners know if they get another chance at the Owls, they’ll be even better prepared for them. Just two games later, the Miners had to face another nationally ranked team in WKU. Unfortunately for the Miners, this one wasn’t nearly as close as the Rice game, and they would end up falling in 4 sets.

UTEP has since won 2 straight, and now sits at 3rd in the conference with a record of 7-2 (their only two losses coming to WKU and Rice, both of which are perfect in C-USA play).

They have a huge game coming up against North Texas in Denton on Friday. As I said, this young team has already faced a lot of adversity in their early collegiate careers, yet they have responded to that like they have been doing this for years. Ben Wallis and his team continue to turn heads around the Borderland, and they know that if they have it going for them at the right time, with postseason play right around the corner. The Miners have a real chance to get their first C-USA championship if this young team keeps progressing, and they know that the sky is limited in years to come.

LOOK: Biggest underdog victories in March Madness

Every spring, legions of sports fans turn their attention to college basketball when March Madness takes the national spotlight. Using aggregated Associated Press data, BestOdds has come up with 10 of the biggest—and most unlikely—underdog wins in March Madness history.

More From 600 ESPN El Paso