UTRGV libero Zayas making quick impact

EDINBURG — A season ago, Gysell Zayas was a major cog at Tyler Junior College, recording 356 digs as a sophomore. Now, Zayas is a junior with UTRGV and again in a vital role helping the Vaqueros jump out to a 3-0 conference start.

The Vaqueros completed a perfect six-game homestand on Saturday afternoon at the UTRGV Fieldhouse, sweeping Chicago State 25-8, 25-21, 25-18.

Zayas has 66 digs in conference play and rarely comes off the court.

UTRGV has been a well-oiled machine, outscoring opponents 18 games to four during the undefeated homestand. Zayas, a native of San Antonio, said her strong play revolves around wanting to make the offense run smoothly.

“Just wanting to work for my teammates and getting the ball up for them,” Zayas said. “We can’t win without them, and I need to take care of the first touch, or we can’t win the game.”

Even though Zayas was slow to take credit for her own game, Vaqueros coach Todd Lowery was eager to assign it. He said that she has been the most valuable player on the court on a few occasions.

“The last two nights, against UMKC and today, she is just holding us together,” Lowery said. “I thought we didn’t play that well against UMKC, and she was the bright spot of the night in that match. She’s just really starting to take care of all those easy balls — the tips and the roll shots that were giving us problems in the past.”

Lowery has been a positive impact since taking the reins of UTRGV two seasons ago. The 2016 WAC Tournament championship was a product of that impact, but his influence also extends into the recruiting process.

He credited his assistants for helping contact and attract a talent like Zayas.

“Gysell was a great gift for us. She was playing at Tyler, a top junior college program in the country,” Lowery said. “A lot of credit to (assistant coach) Vini (Baigan) with Gysell. He was the one that was really on top of her recruiting and just overall. She came down and visited and felt like it was the right place for her.”

Zayas said the move was an easy decision after her visit to the Valley.

“I just felt like the girls were like family,” Zayas said. “They help you. The volleyball was great. I looked at campus. They gave me a tour, and I just fell in love.”

UTRGV sports five women from within the state of Texas. Serbian players Bojana Mitrovic and Tina Sekulic followed Lowery from the University of Texas Brownsville, where he coached before taking the position with UTRGV.

The Vaqueros are already reaping the benefits of Lowery’s recruiting this season. Freshmen Veronika Jandova and Debora Nazario have stepped into prominent roles. Jandova has led the team in blocks four times, and Nazario has been the team’s assist leader on five occasions.

Sophomores like Julia Moctezuma and Paulina Ramirez are getting game action and learning from the starters ahead of them.

Moctezuma, a Houston-area recruit, says practice has been about making sure the Vaqueros vary their offense.

“In practice, we’ve been working really hard on changing everything and not doing the same things so other teams know what we’re doing,” Moctezuma said. “Everyone on the team, we can all pick each other up, and if one of us are having a bad day, we know.”

Lowery echoed the focus on being an unpredictable group to play against.

“We’re improving as a team,” Lowery said. “We’re tying to become a little more sophisticated with our offense and do some things that are causing people problems.”

The Vaqueros will now take their show on the road against Utah Valley and Seattle University.

“Being at home has been great. We’ve been able to get quality practice in and then take care of business in the WAC on our home court,” Lowery said. “We have to figure out a way to take the intensity that we have here on the road.”