Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Serena Patterson lead UTEP volleyball to new heights

Bret Bloomquist
El Paso Times

Serena Patterson experienced the olden times and they were not golden.

An outside hitter and long-time anchor for the UTEP volleyball team, Patterson came to El Paso in 2018, partly because she’s a Miner legacy following in the footsteps of her parents, who were UTEP athletes, and partly because the Miners were so bad she knew she could play right away.

More:C-USA volleyball standings

UTEP's Serena Patterson goes up for a spike in Sunday's match against New Mexico State at Memorial Gym

On that last count she was right, as she became a quick contributor for a 5-21 team, along with another freshman, setter Kristen Fritsche.

What Patterson didn’t know was the transformation she and her program would make when, prior to her sophomore year, coach Ben Wallis came over from nearby power New Mexico State.

“When I first got here, we were bottom of the pack in everything: digs per set, hitting percentage, all that,” Patterson said. “We always showed up late for practice, we'd show up right before.

“Now we're ready to go 30 minutes before. We're just .. different. The coaching staff brings a lot of energy in, they force us to have energy.

“We didn't have energy at all when they first got here. That was upsetting for them. But we want to be here now, we don't show up just to show up.”

So soon enough, 5-21 gave way to 13-15 in 2019, which became 10-7 with a conference tournament win in 2020. This past Sunday, in front of a packed, loud Memorial Gym, UTEP went to 6-0 with a wild five-set victory over New Mexico State.

The players celebrated on the court for 10 minutes after the first victory over their rivals in a decade, they improved to 3-21 against the Aggies since 2004, they paraded a pick axe around the gym while the pep band blared.

“Amazing,” Patterson said with some awe as she took in the scene around her. In a way, this was not what she signed up for when she came to UTEP.

“My parents, I knew they came here, I thought that was interesting,” said Patterson, whose parents Fredrick and Paige McKenzie Patterson were a football and women’s basketball player, respectively, from 1989-92.

“I know the program wasn't good when I first came here, but I didn't want to go somewhere where they were great and I'd never get a shot to play. So UTEP was a great pick for that.”

Serena Patterson is a senior outside hitter for the UTEP volleyball team

Partly because of Patterson (technically an El Paso native, though she doesn’t remember living here as a 1-year-old), and also Fritsche and the other holdover from the pre-Wallis times, Kenidy Howard, UTEP is becoming a destination for people who want to win.

The culture of the program, something often repeated in recent weeks, has transformed.

“Expectations are the best part of sports and life: When you're given much, much is expected of you,” Wallis said. “There are three players still here from when we took the job in 2019 and all three of them are playing big roles on the team.

“There's a reason: They wanted to be this way, they wanted the program to act like this when we took the job. They put in the time, energy and work and now they are seeing great results.”

Said Patterson: “I'd have to say it was a big adjustment. Before them, I wasn't really going to school. I was just here.

“They made it known, ‘You're a student-athlete, school first, then volleyball. And you don't just show up for volleyball five minutes before practice.’ It was a major adjustment.”

She adjusted just fine. Patterson, who came to UTEP after a star turn at Red Oak High School in the Metroplex, leads the undefeated Miners with 78 points and 64 kills and her 53 digs is second on the team. She does a little bit of everything for UTEP, including lead.

“She's finally starting to realize how gifted she is athletically,” Wallis said. “In the air she sees herself being more physical and going inside of blocks. She didn't think she could do it a couple of years ago, she definitely didn't think even last year she could do it.

“She's starting to realize, 'I can score with two people in front of me.' That's the real key to being a big-time college outside hitter. Not just scoring when you have one-on-one but scoring when there are two people in front of you and they know the ball's going to you.”

Patterson is more modest about that, which begins to speak of what kind of leader she’s become.

“My role on the team is to play hard every game, give 100 percent effort,” she said. “If I'm not passing it great, find something else to do. If I'm not hitting it great, pass it great, serve it great. Always be there for my team, help us compete.”

Said Wallis: “It's kind of a cliché to say you have good leaders, but we didn't have good leaders two years ago, we didn't have great leaders last year. We're thankful they developed.

“SPs at the forefront of that. She has a great perspective on college volleyball and on life. When things go well in a team culture, the players and the coaching staff think collectively the same way. The players take care of the coaches, the coaches take care of the players. That's what's going on right now.”

What Patterson also sees is how much more belief she has in her ability. She’s transformed from the freshman-to-be who sought out a poor program into a senior who helped create a special one.

“Confidence-wise I've shot up a lot,” she said. “My freshman year I was not confident at all. Ben and them came in and they boosted my confidence. I still think I'm getting better every single day.”

So is her team as they are collectively taking a ride to remember.

Bret Bloomquist can be reached at 915-546-6359; bbloomquist@elpasotimes.com; @Bretbloomquist on Twitter.