Aug. 18, 2004
The 2004 Lobos will be looking to turn the page and open the doors toward beginning a new era in the program's history. With a fresh approach and positive attitude, this balanced group of returning letterwinners and talented newcomers believes it can provide the Lobo program a foundation in which to build for years to come.
After a rebuilding season last fall in which the young Lobos had a chance to develop in one of the top volleyball conferences in the nation, five starters return this season with a renewed sense of commitment to bring the program back on track for long-term success.
Leading the way is third-year head coach Kelley McKee, who is strengthening the Lobo program from the ground up, much like she did in her previous position at Northern Arizona. McKee collected a 143-104 (.579) record in her nine years at NAU, including two conference titles and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament. After getting settled at NAU, McKee led her teams to five straight winning seasons before her departure, going 90-45 during that span. Now she's looking to do the same with the Lobo program -- a proud program that has earned seven NCAA Tournament bids and three Sweet 16 berths in its history.
"We have a very solid group of athletes," said McKee. "We must stay healthy in order to improve as a team. If we continue to improve as as a team, we will be competitive."
McKee has surrounded herself with a quality staff (third-year assistant Brent Aldridge and second-year assistant Chelsea Robb) that is prepared for the challenges that lie ahead.
"We're in a really good place as a staff," McKee said. "We're very focused on what we need to do with this team. We have clear roles and responsibilities. I feel really fortunate -- this is one of the best staffs I've ever had." The staff has been working on various schemes in the offseason in order to maximize the talents of this year's team.
"Our staff has been working all summer on our defensive package, which revolves around our serving, blocking and transition game," said McKee. "Part of our philosophy is to attack the baseline and disrupt the opponents' offense, which in turn feeds into our block. Our defensive system is really solid and our kids understand it.
"What we really improved on last year was our serving (second in the Mountain West)," continued McKee. "Offensively is where we need to make the biggest improvement this season. We're really trying to stabilize our serve-receive pattern. We're not a big physical team, therefore our ball control has to be significantly better in order for us to have a balanced attack."
Ultimately, there is only one thing on the mind of the Lobo coaching staff.
"The only cure is winning," said McKee. "A big part of what we learned last year is that you have to focus on what you can control. There were so many external factors that happened to us last year that were outside of our control. As a staff we must keep teaching and training this core group until we turn the corner competitively."
The five returning players (seniors Adah Burke, Monica Meihack; junior Chelsea Sondrup; sophomores Jennifer Heasty, Kelly Therkelsen) all gained valuable playing time last season, especially the two freshmen. This year, all of them will be counted on to contribute even more in order for the team to be successful.
McKee is expecting the two seniors, Burke and Meihack, to step into the leadership roles.
Burke, who was a mid-season walk-on in 2002, has earned a full-ride scholarship after steadily developing into of one the top liberos in the Mountain West. Last season, she was third in the MWC in league matches with 3.23 digs per game and led the Lobos in all games with 2.88 digs per game. Burke shined off the court as well, garnering Academic All-District VI honors with a 4.04 GPA in Mathematics.
"Adah has led us in the weight room, in the classroom, in conditioning and on the volleyball court," McKee said. "She has made amazing changes in her game. She is a high-energy person, but she was able to stabilize the team in a difficult situation last year, which was an excellent sign of her playing and leadership skills."
Meihack will be the starting setter after splitting time at the position in 2003. As a sophomore, Meihack tallied 1,249 assists, which was good for second most in a UNM season. She played libero for eight matches in the middle of 2003 and responded well after earning top libero honors during the Albuquerque Marriott Lobo Classic, but Coach McKee moved her back to setter to pace the offense in the second half of the season.
"Because of our roster last year, we had four players playing out of position," McKee explained. "We have no intentions of moving Monica around. She's our most experienced player, and she's coming in as our No. 1 setter. We're expecting her to run a consistent and balanced offense while providing leadership in the setting position."
Junior middle blocker Chelsea Sondrup is one of the Lobos' most formidable forces at the net. In just two seasons, she has 210 career blocks, including a UNM school record 131 block assists her freshman season. She led the team in blocks once again last fall with 73, and was second on the team in kills (228; 2.30 pg) and points (289).
"Chelsea rose to the occasion this spring -- on the track, in the weight room and on the volleyball court," said McKee. "She has matured both physically and mentally. Her true position is a middle blocker, and if she is able to apply all the lessons she has learned, we will enjoy a consistent and very dynamic player for 2004."
Although she had a productive freshman campaign, the coaching staff is expecting sophomore outside hitter Jennifer Heasty to break out this season. Heasty led the Lobo starters in attack percentage in 2003 and was second in blocks.
"I think we're going to see Jen flourish in her natural position this season," McKee said of Heasty, who played several positions last year. "She had to get stronger and learn how to train, and she did that in the offseason. She's learning how to push herself out of her comfort zone."
Fellow sophomore Kelly Therkelsen will stabilize the Lobos on the right side. Therkelsen stepped into the Lobo lineup her first year and was third on the team in blocks (66) and fourth in kills (165) and points (213.5).
"This is a kid that you give something to do, and she does it," stated McKee. "She learned a lot in her first season, and her strengths in hitting and blocking will help us this season. We expect great things from Kelly and believe she will turn into a dominant force at the net."
Eight newcomers, composed of two junior transfers and six freshmen, round out the roster for the Lobos.
The two transfers, Gabriella Veres and Nicole Ryan, are experienced players who will need to make an immediate impact. Three freshmen (Kim Cox, Samie Weber, Emily Zastrow) signed NLI's in the early recruiting season, while the other three freshman join the team as walk-ons (Holly Almond, Laura Conklin, Jessica Hezekiah).
"We have really good incoming freshmen and the additions of transfers Gabriella and Nicole will bring some experience and balance to our team," McKee said. "We're really looking to stabilize our program with some depth in each class, and I think we're headed in that direction. Gabi and Nicole, as juniors, need to come in and make an impact, and they know that. They will add to the core of returning players, and the freshmen will flourish into quality players.
"I love our newcomers' competitive attitude," McKee continued. "They compete at a very high level, are versatile, and come from winning programs. We have to count on them to bring that to the table this season."
Gabriella Veres, a 6-1 middle blocker, arrives to the Lobos from Budapest, Hungary. Veres played for the Hungarian National Team and was invited to Hungary's Division II all-ages team 10 consecutive years. She was named the MVP of the 2003 Division II final and was a member of the 2004 championship team.
"From a middle blocking perspective, she has great size and hits a heavy ball," stated McKee. "The trick of the trade with her is how she's going to adjust to the new systems and the new level of training. She's extremely competitive, and is a lot like Chelsea Sondrup in that she has the ability to play all six positions."
Joining Veres from the transfer ranks is Nicole Ryan, a 5-11 outside hitter who played at Golden West Community College in 2003 and East Tennessee State in 2002. Ryan led GWCC to a perfect 22-0 season and a California State Junior College Championship in 2003, and was named the Southern Conference Freshman of the Year at ETSU in 2002. Now, she's looking for a permanent home in Albuquerque.
"Nicole's a great team player," explained McKee. "When you look at how we want to out-work other teams, she's a vital component to the equation. She's feisty and has a ton of experience. She's really looking to stabilize here. She's just a good overall addition to our team."
While the two transfers bring experience, McKee is ecstatic at the addition of her talented freshmen class that will be at UNM for four years.
Kim Cox, a native of Flagstaff, Ariz., is familiar with Coach McKee and her system after watching the Northern Arizona program. Although she was an outside hitter that led her high school team to two state titles, she will likely be a defensive specialist/libero for the Lobos.
"This kid is a flat-out winner," McKee said. "She has great leadership skills, and is one of those players that could turn into an on-court coach. She will no doubt stabilize us on the back row and will make players around her better with her will to win. She's no holds barred -- she really goes after it."
Samie Weber, a 6-0 middle blocker from Fort Lupton, Colo., looks to become an impact player in the middle for the Lobos.
"This kid is a gem," said McKee. "She's going to get really, really good. She has high standards on and off the court and will come in and compete immediately for playing time."
The Lobo coaching staff is looking for six-foot Emily Zastrow (Glendale, Ariz.) to be an outstanding right-side hitter while learning the setting position.
"Emily is a versatile player that will add depth at both the right side and setter positions," McKee said.
Rounding out the freshmen class are walk-ons Holly Allman, Laura Conklin and Jessica Hezekiah.
Conklin and Hezekiah are Albuquerque products, as they attended Cibola and Eldorado high schools, respectively. Conklin could see time as a defensive specialist or libero, while Hezekiah is a right-side hitter. Allman, a California native, will add depth at setter.
The Lobos begin the season with 10 non-conference matches to prepare them for the grueling Mountain West Conference slate. New Mexico will host two tournaments, including the Comcast Lobo Invitational, which kicks off the season Sept. 3-4. UNM will be looking for its third straight Lobo Invitational title, this time against Creighton, Montana and Northern Colorado. The Bears of Northern Colorado are coming off a 32-2 season after claiming the NCAA Division I Independent Championship in 2003.
The Cherry & Silver will then hit the road for the Delaware Invitational Sept. 10-11 in Newark, Del. The Lobos defeated the Blue Hens last fall in Albuquerque to win the Comcast Lobo Invitational; UNM will also face George Washington and Albany in the tournament.
The Lobos return home from the East Coast and take a break from tournament action with a home match vs. instrastate rival New Mexico State Sept. 14. The two rivals will meet again Oct. 5 in Las Cruces.
UNM hosts its second tournament, the Albuquerque Marriott Lobo Volleyball Classic, Sept. 19-20. The four-team tournament features Hartford, UTEP and Weber State.
The Mountain West Conference season opens Sept. 24 at Wyoming. The competitive conference, which put three teams in the 2003 NCAA Tournament and one (Colorado State) in the Sweet 16, features eight teams with strong volleyball traditions. The Lobos will face each MWC opponent twice before traveling to the MWC Volleyball Championship, held Nov. 18-20 in Fort Collins, Colo.
"We need to play at a high level and win some matches in our non-conference schedule so that we can gain the confidence we need to play in the highly competitive Mountain West Conference," said McKee.
The Lobo program will also be hosting the annual Alumni Match, in which former players match up against the current team in a controlled scrimmage. This year's Alumni Match is set for Saturday, Nov. 6 at 7 p.m.