UTRGV volleyball team eyes WAC title; plays California Baptist at home tonight

EDINBURG — UTRGV volleyball player Ragni Knudsen was almost a setter.

To understand what that means, it would be like saying New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was almost a punter.

Knudsen, the 5-foot-11 outside hitter from Myre, Norway, grew up in a household where her older sister was a setter and her mom was a setter. Therefore, she was all set to follow in those footsteps.

Knudsen, however, stood firm (and went through a growth spurt), winning her role at hitter — and the volleyball world is that much better for it.

Knudsen is the leading hitter for the Vaqueros, and widely considered the next player of the year in the Western Athletic Conference, an award many think she should have won last year. She has amassed 358 kills this year in leading UTRGV to sole possession of first place in the WAC standings with just three matches remaining, all at home.

The first of those three matches will take place at 7 tonight against California Baptist (19-8 overall, 9-5 in the WAC). UTRGV won the first matchup of the season between the two squads, dropping the first set before sweeping the next three. Knudsen led the team with 17 kills in the four set match.

“Setting was boring to me,” Knudsen said of those times. “I wanted to just hit the ball and keep swinging.”

That’s what she’s been doing ever since UTRGV started recruiting her. She spent her first year at a junior college before arriving at UTRGV.

“I love playing here. I’m glad I came here,” Knudsen said.

Knudsen is one of six seniors on the team who are playing in their final stretch. They leave with many memories, including elevating the program and collecting wins over ranked teams including Baylor (twice) and winning the WAC tournament championship two years ago to make the NCAA tournament and a matchup with No. 1 ranked Texas.

“These girls and the staff have worked hard to elevate this program and take it to a next step,” said coach Todd Lowery, in his fifth year at the helm.

Lowery said that he and his staff’s recruiting process was to set out looking for a certain type of athlete — and may not always be the best player on the court based on what the Vaqueros needed. A lot of those char-acteristics package into what he calls “good kids — good in school, good in the community — of course good on the court.”

“This is a competitive conference,” he added. “There are going to be a lot of 25-22 type games. If you have the right people playing together and they trust each other and believe in each other, you are going to win most of those games.”

Lowery said the Vaqueros lost six or seven matches two years ago where the were outscored by 10 points or less. Two years ago, UTRGV made its volleyball presence known by winning the WAC Tournament and claiming the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, where it fell to Texas.

“We played well for three days that year, that was pretty much it but were up and down all season,” he said. “Then last year, we should’ve won the tournament, but let it slip away. We were on our home court and we were a very good team at home.”

This year, however, he said the team has taken its program to another level. The WAC has as well, being ranked No. 26 in regards to a power conference last season and climbing to No. 11 this year.

“As far as we go, the team is finding that next level. They win on the road, they win when they are behind and that win over a legitimately ranked Baylor team was great. They’ve put in a lot of work to see the program go to the next level.”

Of course, Knudsen has played a huge role in helping get the team to that level. Her parents coached at an elite level, right under the national team in Norway, so the International Business major has been around volleyball all here life.

“She’s a special kid and a lot of other people may see that she’s having a breakout year but it’s just more of the same for her,” Lowery said. “She has always been very good and is a great all around player.”

Following tonight’s game at the UTRGV Fieldhouse, the Vaqueros will return to action Nov. 15 against Chi-cago State and then against Kansas City on Nov. 17. The Vaqueros defeated Kansas City earlier in the year and that match could determine the WAC conference champion. Kansas City is currently a half game behind UTRGV in the standings but has two game this week to just one for UTRGV.