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In terms of wins and losses, Stephen F. Austin’s four-set victory over UTRGV on Thursday, wasn’t on the positive side for the home standing Vaqueros.

It was, however, an opportunity where head coach Todd Lowery was pleased to surmise “we’re closing the gap on them.”

UTRGV head coach Todd Lowery. (Kristella Cruz / UTRGV)

While the Lady Jacks captured a 26-24, 25-19, 25-27, 25-17 win to remain undefeated in the Western Athletic Conference, a game ahead of Grand Canyon and three ahead of UTRGV, which is solidly embedded in third place in the conference, Lowery saw a much-improved UTRGV squad during its second meeting with SFA.

SFA swept the Vaqueros earlier this year and is 20-1 all-time against UTRGV on the volleyball court.

“I feel the game was played at a pretty high level and we’ve just gotta be a little bit better, a little more disciplined,” Lowery said. “ I think when we were playing well, we stuck to the game plan. Our biggest problem is when we start to struggle individually, we kind of forget what we are supposed to be doing and that’s what (SFA) is good at. When they are struggling, they are staying really disciplined as far as their game plan goes.”

Thursday’s match was a highly aggressive and physical battle in front of yet another large and boisterous crowd at the UTRGV Fieldhouse, a crowd that is clearly engaging in the impressive never-say-die style of defense the Vaqueros have been performing, sending powerful attacks back with diving one-armed digs and, as in the case Thursday, with a soccer-style kick from star setter Luanna Emiliano that blooped over the net and brought the fans’ noise level to extreme levels.

SFA came into the match ranked eighth in the nation in blocking. Lowery said his team at times helped them add to that.

“But it was worse last time we played,” Lowery said. “A lot of the blocks they got tonight were bad decisions – they had 14, but I’ll take six of them as bad decisions on our hitters. We have to know when that block is closed and we can’t take reckless swings when we don’t have it. Three of those blocks  came in the three or four points, two on bad swings.

“Take away five or six bad decisions and we are right there with them – for us to get nine (blocks) against a good team is not a bad time.”

The high-flying Perris Key and run-through a wall (or whatever else is in the way) Claudia Lupescu powered the Vaqueros with 15 and 12 kills, respectively. Key took a hard attack to the face, but got back up and showed the grit grit that makes up this entire team.  Libero Kiaraliz Perez was either diving or protecting herself during multiple SFA attacks, more often than not coming up with marksman like passes and  Emiliano was, well smooth, steady and superior as she is every match. Yes, the match was physical, and when the Vaqueros finished off the third set with a win there was a cumulative sigh of relief that said “we can beat them.”

They didn’t win,  but an end-of-season conference tournament means there could be another meeting coming up shortly.

“That’s the fun thing about having a conference tournament. We may have been on the short end – winning the regular season then lost in the tournament last year but 365 years later here we are with three losses and them undefeated,” Lowery said. “We’d probably be sitting on the outside looking in for an NCAA berth if we don’t have a tournament.

“It makes it exciting and we have three weeks to get better. We’re going to close the gap more on them (SFA and GCU). They’ve been playing high-level volleyball all year but what I know is that we didn’t look anything like the quality of volleyball played in our gym tonight at the end of preseason. That’s what’s exciting – we get to come in here and instead of being three out and them without a loss, we are just continuing to get better, to close that gap.”

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