UTEP Volleyball Prepares for Borderland Invitational After Hot Start
From a high school assistant to a Division 1 head coach, UTEP volleyball coach Ben Wallis knows the Borderland. He had stops at Franklin High School, Gadsen High School, New Mexico, and NM State before landing his first college head coaching job at UTEP in 2019.
Most can agree that he’s built the Miners’ volleyball program from the ground up. As a former NMSU assistant, Wallis knew the UTEP team well, going 9-0 as an assistant against them. Wallis took over a program that failed to have a winning season since 2012 and hadn’t had a 20-win season since 2005.
He led the Miners to a drastic 8-win turnaround and went 13-15 in his first season at the helm, UTEP’s best record since 2013.
Fast forward four years, Wallis has the Miners as a conference championship contender. He has perhaps the most athletic team in CUSA, and definitely the most athletic team he has had at UTEP. They have size and power. It’s not far-fetched to say that a bulk of their team could easily be playing at the Power-5 level right now.
Coming off of a solid 17-13 2022 campaign, the Miners are a year stronger. The 2022 season was an interesting season for the Miners. They had one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the nation and had lost some leaders from their record-setting 24-win season the year prior. Filled with a ton of freshmen, the Miners struggled out of the gate. They started 4-7 and were 0-3 at home before reeling off six straight wins. The young Miners faced adversity and handled it well. They finished with a 10-4 conference record, the best for Wallis while at UTEP. The Miners fell to #22 Rice in the CUSA semi-finals. The star freshmen group of Kaya Weaver, Torrance Lovesee, Sara Pustahija and Mattie Gant would be back, along with veterans like Alianza Darely and Alyssa Sianez. Even with the losses of stars Serena Patterson and Hula Crisostomo, the Miners were loaded going into 2023.
UTEP added a couple of transfers to add to their already loaded roster, picking up Oral Roberts star middle blocker Sakira LaCour in the transfer portal and JUCO transfer Danika Washington. Both of those newcomers have looked great for the Miners so far. The Miners also have a couple of true freshmen who have played well for them so far, such as setter Kalia Kohler. Their roster may still be young, but they have experience and raw talent.
Southeastern Showdown Recap
They showcased the experience and talent this past weekend at the Southeastern Showdown tournament, a tournament that had two teams that made the NCAA tournament last season. One of those teams was Washington, which received top 25 votes at one point.
UTEP controlled most of the match and beat UW 3-2. Even in the sets they lost, the Miners looked cool, calm and collected. They weren’t intimidated by the Huskies at all, which is very impressive for a younger team. Alianza Darely, one of the graduate students on this team, stepped up huge. She led the Miners in kills with 15. Darely will be looked upon by the younger players. She’s been with Ben Wallis and this program from the very start, playing in 24 matches as a true freshman in Ben Wallis’ first year, 2019.
The Miners hit over 7% better than the Huskies and when Washington forced a winner-take-all 5th set, the Miners stepped up clutch. They had a hitting percentage of 0.45 (45%) and held the Huskies to a tough 0.158 hitting percentage (15%). UTEP would win the 5th set, 15-9.
The Washington win may very well be the biggest win in UTEP volleyball history.
Many have dubbed it a ‘program-changing’ win, which makes sense. Washington is a perennial powerhouse in the PAC-12. And although the word “powerhouse” may be overused these days, Washington fits the bill. They have made the NCAA tournament every year since 2001. That strong run includes a national championship in 2005 and multiple final four trips, one even as recently as 2020. This is the third Power-5 opponent UTEP has beaten in the last two years. Not only does Ben Wallis have the Miners contending in their conference, but he also has them beating Power-5 squads, something UTEP previously could not even dream of.
But Washington wasn’t the only win the Miners took over last weekend. The Miners defeated a solid Grambling State squad that was the third seed in their conference last year, 3-0. Not only is it impressive that the Miners swept Grambling, but they did it only a few hours after beating Washington. To be able to stay focused after such an emotional win shows the growth of UTEP’s maturity from last year to now.
The last game the Miners played was yet another tough one, this time against the tournament host, Southeastern Louisiana. The Lions were coming off of a great 2022 season that saw them make the NCAA tournament. Southeastern Louisiana had a 15-game winning streak before the weekend. Despite that streak ending to Washington the game prior, the Lions were still one of the best teams in the nation at home.
But, the Miners were on a roll.
UTEP dominated from the start, getting out to a quick 2-0 lead. UTEP won the first set by a combined 12 points. Despite losing the third set by 2 points, the Miners took care of business in set 4 and cruised to a 3-1 victory. They finished the weekend 3-0, beating everyone at the tournament.
Borderland Invitational Preview
Now the Miners return home for their first game in Memorial Gym against San Francisco starting Thursday. This is the first game of the Borderland Invitational, an event held by UTEP and NMSU.
USF started their season 2-1 in the UC Irvine Invitational, where they beat both UC Irvine and a solid UNM team. The Miners will have to shut down star hitter Maria Petkova, who leads the Dons in kills. This is a sneaky team that could smell an upset if UTEP overlooks them.
After that, the Miners will travel 45 minutes north to the Pan American Center to take on Arizona State. The Miners look for yet another victory against a PAC-12 opponent this season. But it won’t be easy. The Sun Devils have yet to lose a set this season, going 9-0 in the FGCU Invitational. Now at 3-0, ASU is one of only three remaining undefeated PAC-12 squads. A win against ASU would put UTEP on the map nationally. Beating two PAC-12 teams would not only stamp the Miners on the recruiting trail on the West Coast, but it would also be a sentiment of how far this team has come.
"We really need everyone in El Paso to pack Memorial Gym Thursday night,” Wallis said in a UTEP press release.