UTRGV’s Cruz having dominant season

UTRGV's Sarah Cruz (8) gets a hit past Stephen F. Austin's Alyssa Ortega (4) and Kayla Grant (17) during the WAC Conference opener at the UTRGV field house on Saturday, Sept.25,2021 in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez/The Monitor | [email protected])

EDINBURG – Sarah Cruz is no secret to anyone who prepares to play the UTRGV volleyball team.

Her name leads teams to focus on ways to slow the 6-foot-2 junior right-side hitter from the Czech Republic. It’s also not a secret that many of those best laid plans don’t have very successful outcomes.

Despite falling 25-21,14-25, 25-19, 25-20 to a traditionally strong Stephen F. Austin squad to open WAC play, Cruz delivered career highs in kills (28) and digs, while also chalking up four aces Saturday at the UTRGV Fieldhouse.

The win improved the visiting ‘Jacks to 10-3 overall and 1-0 in the WAC. UTRGV fell to 8-6 overall and 0-1.

“I’d like to have that one back,” UTRGV head coach Todd Lowery said. “We didn’t execute well after 20 in three of those four sets and I think that was the difference. That’s a team that’s won a lot over the last three years as opposed to us.

“When we believe in ourselves, we’re at that level. We were right there. But when we are out of system and have to rely on one player to get it done, it’s not going to be good.”

Cruz was that one player Saturday, attacking with a .400 hitting percentage and being a big reason the Vaqueros remained close throughout the match.

Despite playing at a high level all season and clearly being the biggest muscle in the attack scheme for the Vaqueros, she needed some answers. So she approached Lowery, and they had what Lowery called “a coming to Jesus of sorts.”

 “I thought she was doing a good job at the point but I wasn’t done challenging her,” the seventh-year coach said. “She point-blank said, ‘I think I’m doing a good job coach but you’re hard on me. Are you satisfied? What are your expectations?’

 “She took care of some little things but now my expectations are, ‘Can you be the best player in the WAC? Can you be the best attacker? Once we got to that point, she opened herself up to be challenged, to be coached.”

 Cruz and Lowery both said that the current group of teammates are also challenging her to be great. It wasn’t always the case in the past and, Lowery said, “she’s sitting right here next to me so I feel comfortable saying all these things. But her growth is tremendous. It’s fun to see and, man, everyone in the WAC are going to have their hands full.”

Despite the loss, Saturday was the perfect example. Not only was Cruz dominant on both the front and back rows, she gave the ‘Jacks fits, racking up kills in bunches. Even the Stephen F. Austin sports radio announcer couldn’t stop praising her efforts. “She’s already blown past her career record in kills and we’re only in the fourth said,” he said. “She’s playing amazing.”

Cruz, whose dad played volleyball when he was living in Cuba, began playing volleyball at 10 years old on her hometown club team in Novy, Jicin, Czech Republic. She said she chose UTRGV because of “the feeling of being surrounded by family, and the coaching staff is amazing.”

 “Everything started climbing to a higher playing field beginning during preseason this year,” Cruz said.

 “I was never this confident on a court to be honest,” she said. “It’s not that I didn’t have support, but we weren’t super close. We had good relationships but it wasn’t showing on the court. I have great teammates this season and that’s why it’s going well. They know what to expect from me and they are pushing me to be better every game.”

Those words are definitely being listened to by WAC opponents.

 “Man, she was tremendous again tonight if you look at the stat line,” Lowery said. “Everyone is going to continue to game plan for her but the last four or five matches have been pretty impressive.”

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