EDINBURG — In the waning moments of the third set, Sarah Cruz and her UTRGV teammates were looking to gain that final bit of separation to push to the finish and put the game squarely out of reach.
The sophomore outside hitter looked up into the stands at her parents, who were fresh off a trans-Atlantic voyage to see her shine for UTRGV, and ramped up her play to another level.
Cruz hammered home a pair of kills, blocked an incoming spike and forced the Seattle U Redhawks into multiple mistakes as she helped score four of her team’s final six points as UTRGV sealed a 25-8, 25-22, 25-20 three-set sweep on Thursday night at UTRGV Fieldhouse. UTRGV improved to 11-12 overall and 5-4 in the WAC.
“It’s amazing to have them here,” Cruz said. “I didn’t see them for almost a year and it really helps me mentally for them to be here. I’m really happy that they’re here.”
Cruz, a Czech Republic native, played a physical and emotional brand of volleyball with her parents cheering her on as UTRGV rode strong performances from its talented trio of outside hitters and an all-around team defensive effort to notch its second win over Seattle on the season.
UTRGV jumped out to an enormous early advantage in the first set after winning seven of the game’s initial eight points and never looked back. The squad benefited from hard hitting along the perimeter from Cruz, senior right back Barbara Silva and freshman outside hitter Victoire Nama.
The three combined for 28 of the team’s 35 kills and made a significant impact even when they weren’t landing spikes, sending the Redhawks’ defense into a frenzy just trying to return and keep the ball in play.
“In the locker room before the game we were getting ready mentally,” Silva said. “We knew it would be very important for us to start this game well to give us a rhythm and the momentum and to start the second half of the conference (schedule) in a good way.”
After cruising to a big opening set triumph, the tone of the match shifted dramatically as the two sides remained neck and neck throughout the second and third thanks in large part to some personnel and strategic adjustments made by Seattle.
“They made some lineup changes to spread their offense out. I think when people just try to stay in front of us middle out, we’re pretty good at defending that ball,” UTRGV head coach Todd Lowery said. “A challenge for us all year has been defending that right-side attack and they switched into an offense where they got some better swings off the right side, put a different right-side hitter in and put the right side in the middle who can run the slide.”
The Redhawks came out much more aggressive offensively in the second set and started heavily contesting UTRGV’s hitters at the net after failing to register a block through the first.
“I think you just have to be smart about your game. You have to see the block and see where the free spot is,” Cruz said. “I think it really helps you to get around the block if you take the chance. Sometimes it doesn’t work and sometimes it does.”
But Silva and UTRGV were expecting that tactical change and were able to work around Seattle’s tough defense up front to stay in front.
“We were already expecting a double block, so it was up to us how we were going to hit the ball,” she said. “It’s going to happen, we’re going to get blocked because they’ve been practicing to block us, but it’s up to us on that next ball to say, ‘OK do something different so you don’t get blocked twice.’”
UTRGV’s strong defensive showing and communication helped them stave off multiple comeback attempts from the Redhawks.
The team combined for 47 digs on the night with eight different players contributing to the cause, led by Cruz and junior libero Samaret Carabello, who finished with eight and 14, respectively.
Cruz and Silva agreed that the difference Thursday was their team’s focus and communication throughout, as they stayed the course as Seattle let the match slip away because of mental miscues and lapses in communication.
“I think we were just mentally focused on the game for the rest of the set, so I feel like that really helped us to get through that,” Cruz said. “In the previous games, our communication wasn’t as strong as we needed.”
It was a huge victory for UTRGV, as it lifts the team above .500 in WAC play and jumpstarts a four-game home stand with some positive momentum.
“It’s huge to get rolling because the games get harder as the weekend goes,” Lowery said. “With where we’re sitting, we’re probably going to have to play three matches at the conference tournament in three days to win a WAC title and the tournament, so it’s good for us to pack in three WAC matches in a short amount of time.”
UTRGV will return to the court when it hosts the California Baptist (10-11, 4-4) at noon Saturday. The Lancers lost to UTRGV in a tightly contested five-set match during their first meeting on Oct. 5 in Riverside, California.