Alianza Darley was a fitting first recruit in the Ben Wallis era.
The junior hitter/middle blocker on the UTEP volleyball team has always been a surpassing athlete, but three years ago when her college choices came into focus, Darley didn't consider herself a volleyball player.
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UTEP wasn't much as a volleyball program then, but it had a new coach with a vision. That included stocking the team with athleticism Wallis could mold and turn into something better.
That's happened with a UTEP volleyball team preparing for its first postseason tournament this weekend when it plays Tulsa in Fort Collins, Colo., in the first round of the NIVC. That's happened with the 5-foot-11 Darley, a once raw project and Wallis' first commitment who was just named second-team All-Conference USA.
"I said, ‘Give me athletes and we’ll turn you into volleyball players,'" Wallis said of his recruitment of Darley, a basketball and track star at Robertson High in Las Vegas, N.M. "This year she’s really taken skill, athleticism and tactics and put them all together.
"She was a massive project. Those are my favorite projects, the athletic ones who can go do special things. The reason she’s done so well this year and been fun to coach is she had a look in her eye, she believed what we were dishing out, she understood what we were telling her and she was able to go execute all those things.
"She believes in her ability and her skill this year, which is kind of cool."
Darley's path here was an unusual one. Wallis initially was hoping she would be a walk-on volleyball player at New Mexico State, where he was an assistant in 2018, and a school recruiting Darley for basketball. Darley was strictly a fall volleyball player for her high school and didn't play the sport at a club level.
After Wallis took the UTEP job he went to the New Mexico high school state volleyball tournament with an eye to recruit Darley, who admits the idea of college volleyball was novel to her.
"I had never really thought about playing volleyball, probably because I didn’t grow up playing it," Darley said. "I played basketball. So when he talked to me I thought it was actually pretty cool, it would be a good opportunity to come and try a new sport I had never really trained for.
"That’s why I chose volleyball, to prove to myself and experience something else."
Darley also fell in love with El Paso and the UTEP volleyball program on her visit. She picked UTEP over a few basketball offers, but the Miners were the only volleyball program to offer her a scholarship. That began the path of learning the nuances of a new sport.
"It was difficult at first, I won’t lie," Darley said of her transformation. "But the coaching staff never gave up on me, they always believed in me. It’s nice now to see all the hard work, all the training pay off.
"It’s completely different now. I understand volleyball more than I ever thought I could, more than I thought possible for me to know. It’s pretty amazing."
Her play has been amazing as well. Darley is second on the team in kills and points, and has a .314 hitting percentage. She also leads the team in block-assists and blocks per set as she fills a variety of roles. Her teammates voted her to the team's leadership council.
"She started to have the lightbulb come on this year and realize she was capable of dominating," Wallis said. "She’s still growing, there are a lot of things we can teach her, she’s still learning, but her confidence and understanding of what she was doing this year turned her into a special volleyball player and helped us win at a high level."
Wallis pointed to a sweep of North Texas earlier this year when Darley's blocking on one of C-USA's best players, Rhett Robinson, keyed a sweep.
What excites Darley the most is the transformation of her team, whose progression has mirrored hers.
"We’ve proved a lot in these last couple, three years," she said. "We’re a completely different team, all of us know volleyball differently.
"It was a big eye opener. It was great to be a part of this team and what we did this year."
UTEP volleyball at NIVC tournament
What: The first two rounds of the National Invitational Volleyball Championships, a 31-team postseason tournament
When, where: UTEP vs. Tulsa, 5 p.m. Thursday, Fort Collins, Colo.; second round, UTEP/Tulsa winner vs. Colorado State/Houston Baptist winner, 7 p.m. Friday
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Once raw project Alianza Darley breaks through for UTEP volleyball