Nov. 29, 2009
What: NCAA DI Volleyball Championships
Who/When: Lobos (20-9) vs. Hawaii (28-2), 6 p.m.(MT), Friday, Los Angeles
Online: GameTracker, results on GoLobos.com
Tickets: All-session $15 adults, $12 students/seniors; Single session $10 adults, $6 students/seniors
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
It was a statement for a program, for a coach, for three seniors, for a team, but now there is another statement to be made.
"We're happy to be there, but we're there for a purpose and that's to win," said senior Rose Morris of Sunday's at-large bid that swept the New Mexico Lobos into the NCAA Championships for the first time since 1994.
Said junior Lisa Meeter: "I think this is where the New Mexico program should be. This is where we belong. We're going to play every point like it's the national championship. It's one-and-done if you lose, so we are going to go for it with everything we have."
For Lobo coach Jeff Nelson, the placement of the name New Mexico into a 64-team bracket that includes big-time programs such as Penn State, Stanford, Texas, UCLA and Florida State is as much a validation of a program as it is this special 2009 team of Lobos.
"This is about setting higher standards and higher expectations for our program," said Nelson. "We don't want the NCAA to be a goal, but an expectation. We needed to raise the bar."
The goal and the expectation didn't come to Nelson's Lobos in 2008 and that produced a few jitters and nerves for Sunday's Selection Show that the Lobos watched on the third floor of the Tow Diehm Building.
NCAA Bound Lobos
2 Lisa Meeter
3 Melissa Rohr
4 Ashley Rhoades
5 Jordan Russell
6 Rose Morris
7 Jade Michaelsen
8 Allison Buck
9 Allie Suiter
11 Amy Wong
12 Taylor Hadfield
13 Kelly Williamson
14 Anna Lehne
15 Jackie Rodriguez
16 Rachel Barber
17 Carli Torr
The first 32 schools went up and New Mexico wasn't on the 64-team bracket. When the portion of the bracket popped up with New Mexico paired with Hawaii, the shouts and screams from these Lobos was startling.
"When it's been 15 years, you have some knots in your stomach," said Nelson. "I think our kids got a little nervous after the first 32 went up and we weren't there. But we expected to be there and we expected to be there from the start of the season."
The Lobos will travel to Los Angeles on Thursday and play the Hawaii Rainbow Wahine on Friday. The No. 12 seed Rainbow Wahine are a good team and a good program. Their seed might even be a bit deceiving. Hawaii is ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation.
Hawaii won its 10th straight Western Athletic Conference by sweeping New Mexico State 25-17, 25-17, 25-23. The Wahine went undefeated in WAC play to win their 14th straight regular season title. Hawaii is 28-2.
Hawaii is paced by Kanani Danielson, Aneli Cubi-Otineru, Dani Mafua, Amber Kaufman, Stephanie Ferrell, and Brittany Hewitt.
"Hawaii is going to be a fun game," said senior Anna Lehne. "I think we are pretty equal to them. It will be a fun, intense game and our plan is to play our hearts out."
Said senior Allie Suiter: "It's a great opportunity for us. We're all excited about this."
If the Lobos get past Hawaii, they'll play on Saturday the winner of Friday's Southern Cal (21-9) vs. Oklahoma (18-11) game. UNM is in the Stanford Region on the same side of the bracket as No. 5 seed Illinois. Stanford, a No. 4 seed, is on the bottom half of the bracket.
The Lobos' RPI, regional ranking and strength of schedule made them appear as a lock for an at-large bid, but the players still remembered the snub of 2008.
"There were some nerves," said Lehne. "We all felt confident going into this, but when I saw our name up there, it was the best feeling ever. It was overwhelming. You definitely aren't 100 percent until you see your name up there, so we got excited when we saw it."
Said Morris: "If you aren't a guarantee, there is some doubt. This feels so good. I told the players that I didn't expect Friday (at New Orleans) to be my last game."
The Lobos made a few big strides this season in changing the culture of Lobos volleyball and establishing a few more expectations. The Lobos ended an eight-match road losing streak at NMSU. The Lobos won at Utah for the first time in 13 years.
But the streak of frustration that ended Sunday was huge. Morris said she was in kindergarden the last time (1994) that UNM went into postseason play.
"The seniors have done a lot of work to get the program back to the NCAA," said the Sandia High product. "We have put blood, sweat and tears into this."
Said Lehne: "It's so satisfying to get back there after 15 years. Everyone on this team has put their heart into this sport and into this team."
Said Nelson: "This is exciting. This is fun. It's a great experience to play in the NCAAS. It's been a long 15 years but we're thrilled to say New Mexico volleyball is officially back."
Back, but not finished. "We still have some work to do," said Morris.
Lobo Notes: This is the third school that Nelson has taken into the NCAA postseason. ... The volleyball team's entrance into postseason play marks the first time in UNM history that four teams have marched into postseason play during the fall season: volleyball, men's soccer, men's and women's cross country.