With about eight or nine matches left in the regular season, UTRGV volleyball coach Todd Lowery was still searching for the best possible rotation for his squad.
When the Vaqueros play today in the semifinals of the Western Athletic Conference Tournament — as the No. 1 seed riding an eight-match win streak — it’s probably fair to say mission accomplished.
“The girls have come together and I think this rotation that we found is maximizing strengths and using more kids than early on,” said Lowery, in his fifth year at the helm of the Vaqueros. “Some of their roles may have changed from last year, but we have played some really good volleyball.”
The team convened Thursday to watch Cal St.–Bakersfield fall at the hands of Utah Valley — the team the Vaqueros will take on at 6:30 tonight. The championship match is slated for 9 p.m. Saturday.
Bakersfield is the host club.
On Wednesday night, UTRGV’s Ragni Steen Knudsen, a senior outside hitter, was named WAC Player of the Year. Of course, Knudsen played a prominent role in every one of those rotation differences. A hard-hitting attacker who can also place the ball down the line or cut it hard cross court, Knudsen is also an aggressive server who had runs of nine points twice in the regular season conference clinching match against Kansas City. She also provides the team a powerful back-row .hitter that has to keep the opposing middle hitters honest and opens up the outsides just a little more.
“She’s one of the best I’ve ever played with,” said UTRGV libero Gysell Zayas, who has made spectacular defensive saves all season, climbing into the stands on more than one occasion to keep a ball in play. “Her dynamic being and athleticism defines this team. There’s definitely a spark between me and her and sometimes we don’t need words; I can just feel her presence.
“I’m there to cover for her and vice versa. She’s just awesome on and off the court. If you don’t have that with your teammates, the whole experience is not as fun or as competitive.”
Senior middle hitter Alexandra Ecker and right side senior hitter Barbara Silva were also both honored by the WAC, being named to the All-WAC second team. Silva had a monster match in the regular-season finale, registering 19 kills on a .424 hitting percentage. Ecker was recruited as an outside hitter but was asked by Lowery and staff to move to middle. She’s the program’s all-time block leader with 418 and block assist leader with 378
UTRGV went 22-8 overall and 13-3 in the WAC. The Vaqueros split matches with Utah Valley, winning at home and losing on the road.
UTRGV’s eight-match win streak not only propelled them to the top seed for the tournament, where the winner gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but it also shot the team to No. 69 in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI).
“A while ago we set a goal to get this program in the top 150 of the RPI, and to see this program go from 150 to 125 to 100 and now in the top 75 is huge,” Lowery said. “When you start looking at the RPO list and see the universities and program you’re in the same conversation with at 69, you see a lot of really good volleyball teams.”