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Transforming UTEP volleyball with passion and precision under Ben Wallis

Volleyball head coach Ben Wallis is entering his fifth season after leaving his position at New Mexico State. Photo courtesy UTEP Athletics

It was not too long ago when UTEP volleyball was a struggling program. From 2000 to 2019, UTEP only saw three seasons (2005, 2012 and 2013) with a winning percentage at or above .500 in conference play. This includes the Miners’ time with the Western Athletic Conference and the entrance into Conference USA. 

This was until UTEP handed the reigns of the program to current head coach, Ben Wallis. 

Wallis was brought on after the firing of Holly Watts. The UTEP volleyball team under Watts did not see a winning season since she was brought on in 2013. 

Following the departure of Watts after the 2018 season, UTEP Director of Athletics Jim Senter announced a national search for a new coach would take place. 

The search lasted over a month as Senter found his coach in Ben Wallis who, prior to joining UTEP, was an associate head coach for New Mexico State (NMSU). 

Senter touted Wallis’ recruiting abilities and his familiarity with the West Texas region. 

“We had a great applicant pool and (Wallis) emerged as one of the top candidates,” Senter said in December 2018. “His name kept coming up as a person who is ready and capable of leading a program.  He is known for his technical expertise, developing players and recruiting.  It’s a bonus that he is already in our region and has roots in the Sun City.” 

It did not take long for Wallis to turn over results in the new position. In his inaugural 2019 season, the Miners went 13-15 and 6-8 in conference play. The following season would show more promise as the Miners would win ten games. Something that had not happened since the 2013 season even though the season was cut short due to COVID-19. 

The team would break another milestone as the team finished with 24 wins, the most since the 1988 season. That same season, the team would receive its first ever postseason bid. The Miners would reach the semifinals of the National Invitational Volleyball Championship where the team fell to UNLV Rebels. 

A program turn-around like this is difficult, especially for smaller programs. Wallis, however, does not dwell on what he did, rather what is in front of the team. 

“(The) message this year was that we needed to live more in the present in everything we do and focus just on what was in front of us that day,” said Wallis. “We’ve re-tooled the roster with a crazy high number of athletic kids, and we’ve also just recruited people that love sports, working hard, and are willing to do things that are outside of their comfort zone in order to be great here and fit with our ‘hard hat culture.’” 

Naturally, an impressive turn-around attracts a number of accolades. From nods by national ranking polls to C-USA accolades, UTEP has made an impressive stand since Wallis’ arrival. 

Wallis chooses to see these awards as a progress meter rather than a destination though. 

“They just mean that we’re moving in the right direction and that we’re giving ourselves a chance to win our conference and be a top 50 or top 100 program in America each and every season,” said Wallis. 

One of the biggest draws for Wallis during the national search was his recruiting ability. Players from all around the world have decided to come play for UTEP. Getting players in the building is tough and schools pay good money to those who can sell a team to a recruit.  

Starting a good recruiting program can be tricky. Good teams have good players because they win, but they win because they have good players. This becomes a “chicken and egg” scenario. 

Wallis has a simple way to recruit players though, simply leaning back on UTEP and El Paso as a whole. 

“We can sell UTEP to so many different types of players now because of how successful we’ve been in several areas,” said Wallis. “The fact that we have awesome crowds, our city is a melting pot full of culture and great people. We have an academic institution that is very highly thought of and is a Tier 1 research institution allows for us to recruit really anyone we want now.” 

 At NMSU, Wallis grew a great deal of admiration for Head Coach Mike Jordan. Jordan has been at NMSU for over 25 years where he became the most winningest coach in the school’s history racking up 544 wins. Some of those wins were alongside Wallis. 

“I am still very close with Mike Jordan; head coach at NMSU, as he is my mentor and we’ve known each other for 20 years,” said Wallis.  

Jordan expressed his appreciation for Wallis when UTEP hired him back in late 2018. 

“UTEP made a great choice,” Jordan said. “Ben will do a great job there as he has here. I’m happy for Ben and Leah (Wallis’ wife) that they get to stay close to family and he has this opportunity. He’s a really good coach and an even better friend, so I’m glad he’ll be close by.” 

The UTEP-New Mexico State rivalry spans across several sports, including volleyball and has been contentious. For Wallis, who has coached on both sides of the rivalry, find enjoyment when facing his alma mater. 

“It’s a great rivalry for me in many ways,” said Wallis. “I went to and coached at NMSU and have a big heart for them except when we’re playing each other. My wife played volleyball at NMSU, and we both have degrees from there and helped raise our kids in Las Cruces for 6 years. They’re good, we’re good, and we’ve played 4 times and each of those times we’ve played 5 sets each time with UTEP winning 2 and NMSU winning 2. Needless to say, each time we play it’s going to be nasty competitive.” 

The upcoming NMSU series will take place Tuesday Oct. 3, and Wednesday Oct. 4, at the Pan-American Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico. 

In the meantime, the Miners face Jax State Thursday, Sept. 28, at Memorial Gym to kick off regular season play. 

Statistics provided by UTEP Athletics. 

Emmanuel Rivas Valenzuela Armendariz is the sports editor and may be reached at [email protected]: @rivasemmanuel2 on Instagram 

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About the Contributor
Emmanuel Rivas Valenzuela
Emmanuel Rivas Valenzuela, Contributor/Writer
Emmanuel Rivas Valenzuela is a contributor for The Prospector. He is a senior majoring in multimedia journalism with minors in political science and Chicano studies. Emmanuel served as sports editor at The Prospector and as a writer with Minero Magazine. Now, Emmanuel is interning at El Paso Matters and is a contributor at The Prospector.
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