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'From zero to 100': Fritsche leads UTEP volleyball resurgence

Bret Bloomquist
El Paso Times

The UTEP volleyball team was tired, well-traveled and ready to get home after winning two of three games in Corpus Christi last weekend, a total that represented a month's worth of victories just three years ago.

Coach Ben Wallis is used to seeing that in airports at the end of a road weekend, but lately, there is something else he's getting used to seeing.

There was setter Kristen Fritsche, generally considered the on-court brains of the operation, and a few of her teammates, on their computers. They were scouting.

"Usually, when your players leave the volleyball gym in a scenario like that, you watch them in the airport, and they're decompressing, getting homework done, or they're just taking a rest," Wallis said.

UTEP senior captain Kristen Fritsche serves in a recent match

"I walked by three or four of my volleyball players in the airport on Sunday and they were watching volleyball. They were watching other teams play, and they were watching some of our conference opponents coming up.

"Kristen's one of those who loves to watch volleyball."

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One of the three players on the 5-21 pre-Wallis team of 2018, the senior captain Fritsche remembers when there were other priorities. According to Fritsche, their culture is the key to UTEP's best-ever 10-2 start, one they will put on the line Thursday at UT-Rio Grande Valley.

That comes as a sharp contrast to what she walked into as a freshman from California who knew by becoming a Miner she could step right in and play.

"There wasn't one, there wasn't any culture," She said. "You show up at practice when practice started and get out as soon as you can.

"What's gone right (this year) is our team culture. We've been really good at staying together as a unit. Obviously, we have better offense and defense, but we're locking in together. Even when we lose our confidence we've been quick to turn it around.

"Everybody is committed to winning. That's our goal. Our first priority is volleyball; we're here to win."

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She's a big part of that. As the setter, she quarterbacks the attack, and Fritsche has expanded that role to all aspects of the team.

"I'm in control on the court, and off the court, I've assumed that leadership role," she said. "I'm in charge of keeping all these girls in line, but that's fun.

"Leadership means trying to do the right thing, stepping up, being a good teammate. That's what I try to do every day."

 What Fritsche also does every day is study volleyball. She's turned herself into a relentless preparer.

"So she brings a really good intellect to it, she really brings a mindset as a coach of understanding what we want to get accomplished," Wallis said. "She's a step ahead of the other teams because she watches so much video, and my team as a whole has taken that on as well.

"We've spent two and a half years teaching her to watch video and now she knows how to do it."

Fritsche sees that as the responsibility of a setter.

"I like to think I'm smart," she said. "I look at the block to make sure my hitters are one-on-one. I try to use my volleyball IQ against the other team."

That's come with time, and hers is drawing to a close. While Fritsche could play in 2022 due to the free COVID year last season, she plans on offseason shoulder surgery that will mark the end of her career.

Fritsche's thinking about graduate school, maybe becoming a graduate assistant, and seeing where that leads. As her career winds down, she marvels at the transformation of her team and herself.

"I was a little intimidated by Ben and everything he wanted (when he arrived in 2019), but I knew I wanted to be great," Fritsche said. "I embraced the change and worked hard to get to where we are now.

"It's been a lot of work, especially as a captain, going through the whole roller coaster. But it's so exciting to see it now.

"A lot of it was the expectation from the coaches, that helped, but ultimately it was us girls who decided we wanted to be better. It starts with us and we made that change."

That's something Fritsche knows will be with her the rest of her life, no matter where that takes her.

"I've grown so much as a volleyball player and a person," she said of her time at UTEP. "I have insight into how a team functions, how to start from the ground up and I can use that in anything, from coaching to a job: How to turn something from zero to 100."

That's part of her UTEP legacy.

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