Jan. 9, 2008
New Mexico volleyball coach Jeff Nelson sat down with GoLobos.com to talk about his first season with the Lobos and look ahead to 2008.
Q: After your first season with the Lobos, did this team meet expectations or exceed them?
A: Based on our expectations coming into the year, we probably got close to meeting them. But after the way the year started, I think our expectations got higher and we did not meet those. I think coming in, turning the program around, having a winning record, our biggest goal was teaching the team how to compete again. We do feel like that got accomplished. We feel like we played everybody tough. We feel like there were only one or two really bad matches all year for us. We had a lot of close games, some went our way and some didn't. I feel that was our biggest goal coming in and that got accomplished.
I think we learned to play at a whole new level. The players had fun, worked harder and were more consistent than they had been in a while. After the way the season started, the expectations were raised a little bit and that is where we fell a bit short.
I think the team, though they would hate to say it, got a little satisfied with themselves after the first round of conference and doing so well. For whatever reasons, we didn't finish. There are a couple, we were in a new place, the lack of strong leadership from a senior hurt us. I felt like we didn't have a sense of urgency that we needed to finish a couple of the matches that could have easily gone our way, in particular the last one against BYU, having the lead at 13-11 in the fifth and not finishing. That was really disappointing.
Q: From a player's perspective, were the expectations met?
A: From a player's standpoint I do. I think our players improved a ton. I think they are much more consistent, more stable on the court. One of the things we really wanted to improve was passing and it was significantly better. The great things is that all of our passers are back in 2008. That was one of our goals was to stabilize our passing so that we could be a more consistent team. We really accomplished that.
Q: Did the foot injury to All-Mountain West player Jeanne Fairchild have an effect on the season?
A: One of the things that hurt us this in the long-run was not having Jeanne in practice from late September to the end of the season. To take your best practice player out of practice every day, takes a toll. She struggled with it as well and didn't feel she was able to maintain as high a level of play. But we expect her to be back and ready to go in 2008.
Q: So what do the Lobos have to do in the off-season to crack the top half of the Mountain West Conference in 2008?
A: I think we have to do a better job of developing some leadership, finding the leaders and giving them more responsibilities. We need to put ourselves in as many tough situations as possible and try and work through them. We get some of that in our China trip and in spring tournaments, but we are also looking at some things outside of volleyball that we can do that will be develop stronger team bonding. I think right now they are a pretty close group, but they need to get tighter in difficult situations.
Skillwise, we are going to work on floor defense, an area where we need to get stronger, and teach our hitters to hit more shots and a variety of shots. Those will be the things we focus on this spring. We'll continue with getting a lot of touches and keeping good ball control.
Q: There will not be a post-season conference tournament in 2008. Will it make things easier or harder to push for a national post-season bid?
A: All the teams in the conference have to realize that you are not going to have that last go-round to make a comeback. Our team, in particular, will need to realize that you have to come out every night ready to play because that is going to determine your fate. You won't have a second chance at the end. I think with the strength of our conference, it is not necessary to play a team for a third time during the season.
That being said, I think it will make the conference even more competitive. It was a fun conference to play in this year. It was very competitive. I felt that there were a number of teams, that if you weren't prepared, you could win or lose on any given night. I think that makes it interesting. It forces the players to focus and be more intense. I think we got a lot out of this past season.
The league sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2007 - BYU, Colorado State, and UNLV. We beat BYU in Provo and they advanced to the regional finals, one of the last eight teams standing.
We played some tough competition overall this season. Even Iowa State, who we beat in the Arizona State tournament, advance to the regional semifinals. In all, seven of the teams we played this season earned bids to the NCAA Tournament - BYU, CSU, UNLV, Long Island, Iowa State, San Diego, and New Mexico State.
Q: The Lobos have a solid core returning in 2008. How big will that be?
A: Having everyone back is fantastic! We've got to do more with our middles and get their numbers up, give them a bigger role in the game. The tandem of Lisa Meeter and Jeanne Fairchild returning is huge. I thought they were an outstanding tandem on the left-side this year. A lot of teams commit-blocked on them and they still had a lot of success. We have both right-sides returning, a freshman setter returning, along with a senior-to-be setter who has played a ton and has a lot of experience. We are looking to improve those areas
We'll add a middle blocker and hopefully a few other players before next season that should make the overall team even stronger.
I don't know if any of them should feel safe in their positions, because the group we have is very competitive. People are going to push for positions, so I think it is going to be a fun spring. We'll have 12-13 bodies in the gym every day pushing, then come summer we'll add a few more. I think we are in a good place.
We have some time to get people healthy. Kerri Beck had off-season shoulder surgery and is recovering well. Jeanne Fairchild is recovering nicely from her foot injury. Other than that, we are in pretty good health. We've had a good break and are ready to get after it this spring.
Q: What do you want this team to get out of the trip to China in late May-early June?
A: I want them to get a different experience that pulls the team tighter together. Broaden their horizons a bit. We'll see some great volleyball. We'll have to step up and play, because the teams over there are very disciplined and very focused. I'm hoping we will learn from that and bring some of that back with us as well. We're looking at this as a life-enhancing trip, not just volleyball-enhancing. It will be a unique experience that they will share, and hopefully bring them closer. I think when teams are closer and have shared mutual experiences, it makes the tough times easier. Every team goes through that.
Q: How great was the Lobo fan support in 2007?
A: Our fan support was great and it steadily got better throughout the season. Our Mountain West Conference matches almost tripled in average over the later part of the season, jumping close to 1,300 for those eight matches. It was really exciting! People helped make it so much fun for the players and the staff. We're grateful to the Lobo volleyball fans. They were a big part of us getting back on track. The future looks really bright and hopefully people will continue to come out and bring others with them.
It was awesome to play at home this year. To have that support, have the big crowds, made it a lot more fun for everyone involved.