If a big UTSA volleyball win can be measured in calls, texts, tweets and Facebook posts, then the Roadrunners’ thrilling, five-set victory over previously unbeaten Oklahoma was enormous, one of the largest in school history.
Days after UTSA upset the Sooners in the Nike Invitational in Norman, sparking a social media eruption, coach Laura Neugebauer-Groff was still taking calls and messages.
“I can’t even tell you how many people texted me,” said Neugebauer-Groff, who replied to every commenter on one extended Facebook thread. “They even watched the reruns. And that’s a selling point for us. The more we’re on TV the more we can compete with the Texases and OUs. That’s huge. We want to be a Top 25 program.”
A San Antonio native, Neugebauer-Groff is moving UTSA in that direction, winning, in part, with foreign stars. Senior outside hitter Dajana Boskovic, who was born in Bosnia but calls Serbia home, recorded a career-best 29 kills against OU and was named tournament MVP and Conference USA Offensive Player of the Week.
Junior outside hitter Marijeta Runjic, a Croatian, had 23 kills in the championship match against Ohio and was named to the All-Tournament team. Sophomore outside hitter Antonela Jularic, a Croatian, combined for 17 kills and 16 digs against OU and Ohio.
The foreign brigade led UTSA (9-3) to a come-from-behind, five-set triumph over Wichita State Saturday in the championship match of the Roadrunners Roundup, 25-21, 20-25, 21-25, 25-16, 15-10. Playing at home, Boskovic dominated with 31 kills as UTSA extended its winning streak to six. She was named Tournament MVP. Runjic and senior setter Jessica Waldrip also made the All-Tournament team.
Neugebauer-Groff has lifted the program from the bottom. Her first team won eight games and lost 24 in 2002. Since then, the Roadrunners have notched 14 wins over Power 5 teams, won three conference titles and recorded six consecutive seasons of 20 or more victories. The coach believes this club could be her third to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
“The sky’s the limit for this team,” she said. “But they’ve got to realize that – and realize that a lot of hard work comes with it.”
The Roadrunners play for the standard-bearer of hard work. Volleyball did not come naturally to Neugebauer-Groff. In the early 80’s at Jefferson High School, Laura Neugebauer, as she was known, made the varsity basketball team as a freshman, ran track, and excelled in summer softball. Volleyball? She played on the freshman team. The next season, a ferocious drive and God-given athleticism began elevating her game to legendary status. As a sophomore, she played a key role for coach Delo Dyer’s state runner-up team.
“Miss Dyer sat down a senior and had me start in the state championship game because of my work ethic,” Neugebauer-Groff said. She made All-State as a senior, became an All-American at the University of Texas and played professionally for two years. In 2009, the University Interscholastic League named her to its All-Century third team.
“Laura wanted to go up and bust a block and the other girl’s nose at the same time,” Dyer once told the San Antonio Express-News. “I enjoyed her fire, just the desire to knock out the person on the side.”
Dyer inspired her star player to coach. The only question was which sport; she loved them all. After her pro career ended with the Chicago Breeze in 1988, Neugebauer-Groff coached volleyball, basketball, and track and field at Hondo High. When she became head volleyball coach at St. Mary’s University, she also assisted with basketball and softball.
Neugebauer-Groff won 256 volleyball games at St. Mary’s and concentrated only on that sport at UTSA, where she has become the coach with the most wins (266-191) in program history. She owns 522 career victories, was named Conference USA Coach of the Year in 2014 and was inducted into the San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.
For all her success, competing against Big 12 and other Power 5 schools for prize recruits has been difficult. The arrival of McKenzie Adams in 2011, though, marked a breakthrough. A produce of Steele High, Adams starred in her only season at Virginia – winning Atlantic Coast Conference Freshman of the Year –before deciding to return home to UTSA. Adams became the school’s first All-American and then along came two more: setter Jessica Waldrip from New Braunfels and Boskovic from Serbia.
The recruitment of Boskovic, and the emerging international pipeline of talent, ranks among the biggest breaks of Neugebauer-Groff’s career. The story begins with her then assistant, Sanja Tomasevic, taking an extended Christmas break in her native Serbia to scout talent. Tomasevic discovered Boskovic. Without ever meeting or speaking with Groff, Boskovic enrolled and became an All-American.
“It was real important to have someone I knew from back home,” Boskovic said. “My English at that time was not real good.”
The real coup would have been to sign Tijana Boskovic, Dajana’s younger sister, the 19-year-old star of Serbia’s Olympic team.
“She’s phenomenal,” Neugebauer-Groff said. “She destroyed the United States.”
Indeed, Serbia upset the U.S. in the semifinals to advance to the gold medal match against China, which it lost.
“We tried to get her to come play here for a year with her sister,” Neugebauer-Groff said.
Tijana declined UTSA’s offer and chose to play pro volleyball in Turkey.
“They offered her a lot of money,” Dajana said. “You can make good money in Europe. But not near as much as here in the NBA.”
On another overseas trip, Tomasevic discovered Croatia’s Marijeta Runjic. Serbian assistant Danka Danicic assisted with the recruitment, as did Neugebauer-Groff, and Runjic became a Roadrunner. To deepen international inroads, the head coach took her team to Europe this past summer, hoping to entice more foreign recruits.
Not long ago, Neugebauer-Groff was fighting to land top recruits from New Braunfels. Now she’s reaching players around the world.
There’s no place she’d rather be than UTSA. Her husband and children cheer from the stands in the Convocation Center. Her 83-year-old mother, Frances, attends and offers unfiltered, postgame commentary: “Why didn’t you call time out?” Old teammates from Jefferson show up. Former players drop by to wish her well.
“I’ve never applied for another job,” Neugebauer-Groff said. With so much support and success, she possibly never will.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Runjic was Serbian when she is Croatian.
Top image: UTSA Volleyball Head Coach Laura Neugebauer-Groff gives her team a talk during a time out. Photo by Scott Ball.