The UTEP football team won its first two games of the regular season for the first time in 16 years.
But they are not the biggest sports story of the early fall season: That distinction belongs to the Miners volleyball team, which is off to a 6-0 start. To put this into proper perspective, let’s go back in time to December 2018.
At that time, the team had just finished its fifth consecutive season with under 10 wins and had won just twice in 14 Conference USA matches.
Head coach Holly Watts was relieved of her duties following the season and Ben Wallis was named as her replacement on Dec. 19. Although he knew the program would be a major rebuild, Wallis was confident that he would get UTEP to play competitive volleyball and contend for a conference title a few years later. So far, the results have been exactly as he predicted.
The Miners finished the 2019 season with a 13-15 overall record and were 6-8 in league play. Due to COVID, UTEP did not play a fall 2020 season but instead played 17 matches this spring. They finished with a 10-7 record, including an 8-4 mark in C-USA matches.
Coming into this season, Wallis knew that he would have his strongest team yet.
He brought in a pair of juniors and five freshmen to go along with his 14 returning players. Seniors Serena Patterson and Paulina Perez-Rosas have been terrific early on, and juniors Yasso Amin, Alianza Darley, and Vittoria Price have also been big contributors. Freshman Ema Uskokovic has been among the team leaders in kills. Darley, Perez-Rosas, Price, Patterson and Amin have also been excellent on defense, providing huge blocks that have made UTEP a dangerous team at the net.
The Miner volleyball team did something that had not been accomplished in 35 years. They defeated a pair of Power 5 opponents in the same day on Sunday, Sept. 5.
First, they rallied from two sets down to come back and beat Arizona. That match was played at the Pan Am Center in Las Cruces as part of the Borderland Invitational.
A few hours later, they came home to UTEP’s Memorial Gym and swept Northwestern. Finally, UTEP hosted NMSU in the first Battle of I-10 match. The Miners trailed the Aggies two sets to one, but they rallied to win the final two sets and take the match. The win was especially sweet for Wallis, since he spent the last six seasons in Las Cruces as an assistant under Mike Jordan.
The atmosphere at Memorial Gym for the NMSU match was electric. The historic arena was packed with Miner fans and they were loud throughout the contest. It was by far the most exciting live UTEP sporting event that I had attended in the last 10 years.
The Miners will travel to Portland this week and Corpus Christi next week for a pair of weekend tournaments. UTEP will not return home until Oct. 8 when they host Louisiana Tech in C-USA action.
If they continue to play with the same intensity that they have shown early on, the 2021 volleyball season has a chance to be a special one for Wallis and his Miners.
Since 1997, Steve Kaplowitz has hosted “Sportstalk” from 4 to 7 p.m. weekdays on 600 ESPN El Paso. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.