Dec. 8, 2011
New Mexico Lobos Volleyball -- 2011 Season Review
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
It was a season of ups and downs, highs and lows, injury and inconsistency, promise and frustration. It also was a season of individual success and honors that failed to produce the team results that Jeff Nelson's New Mexico Lobos volleyball program seeks with a passion.
- The postseason.
- A Mountain West title.
"It's important to make it to the postseason, but we weren't deserving," said Nelson of his 14-15 Lobos. "I don't think we worked hard enough this year to make it. It's not that we weren't working hard, but sometimes you have to work even harder to get to the level you need to get to and we didn't necessarily do that."
Part of the problem might have been that the Lobos were too young to understand the level of commitment needed to play with the top college programs in the nation. You want to beat CSU, you not only have to outplay them, you have to outwork them in terms of skill development and even conditioning.
Nelson went into the 2011 season with three savvy seniors backed by a huge handful of underclassmen. The Lobos went into the battle with high hopes that they could overcome the bully of the Mountain West nets -- Colorado State -- and grab UNM`s first-ever MW crown. It didn't happen.
The Lobos' alternate plan was to challenge for the MW title and be a cohesive, confident and consistent unit capable of winning the MW Tournament to be played in Johnson Center.
That didn't happen either.
The Lobos, picked in the MW preseason poll to finish second to CSU, skidded to a fifth-place finish and lost 3-1 to Wyoming in the first round of the MW tourney. UNM did not receive an at-large bid, which would have been the Lobos' third straight trip into NCAA play.
"I thought our young kids were going to mature faster and that didn't happen quick enough," said Nelson. "We needed that to happen and then we needed consistency to help bring them along. I don`t think we found that consistency either."
The success of the season could be highlighted in three words: Buck, Rhoades, Williamson. Once again, Nelson's University of New Mexico volleyball team produced three special seniors that were exceptional all the way through their careers at UNM.
It was the fourth consecutive season in which Nelson's Lobos had at least two Lobos on the All-MW team. Buck, the Mountain West designated Libero, was only the fifth Lobo to repeat as an All-MW Selection.
"Allison was solid and steady every night," said Nelson. "She is one of the easiest kids I've ever coached. She played at a high level and was low maintenance. She made it easy for us.
"It was a special group and that's what you want and need from you senior class. Ashley worked, improved and competed at a high level and Kelly leaves a mark on this program that will be difficult to duplicate."
Rhoades not only led the Lobos in kills and points, but also topped the Mountain West in those two categories. Buck set a UNM single-season and career mark for digs. Williamson, the 2011 Lobo Club Female Student-Athlete, was named 2011 First Team Academic All-District and is a strong candidate to repeat as an academic All-American.
Some of the lows were produced by youth and injury, but there also was inconsistency in a season that began with the Lobos talking of postseason play and ended with too many "what ifs."
The Lobos were 1-6 in five-set matches.
Nelson identified two key losses that hurt his Lobos psyche more than they damaged the team's record.
UNM came off a tough 3-2 loss at Northern Arizona and had posted three consecutive wins heading to Pittsburgh. The Lobos went up two games on Pittsburgh, winning by six and seven points. Then the Lobos dropped three games by two points and lost the match 3-2.
"A (Pittsburgh) player came through the net and one of our players went down," said Nelson. "The team kind of freaked out. We lost three two-point games and that shouldn't have happened. We were the better team. It was something we struggled to overcome mentally."
The Lobos then opened Mountain West play with a shocking 3-1 loss in Johnson Center to TCU. UNM then won two league matches and had a chance to move its MW record to 3-1 when San Diego State came to Albuquerque.
The Lobos were up two games to one, but dropped the final two games to lose 3-2 to the Aztecs. UNM's league mark dipped to 2-2. SDSU roared on to finish as MW runner-up to CSU.
"We lost six match points," said Nelson. "That shouldn't have happened. There were mistakes made by several people, including myself. That loss had a huge impact on our season and our confidence down the stretch."
The Lobos then dropped two 3-0 road games at Colorado State and Wyoming and it was not a thoroughly confident UNM team heading into the home stretch of the MW season.
UNM lost two 3-2 games at home to Wyoming and CSU and opened with the Cowgirls in the MW tourney. When Rhoades went down with an ankle sprain late in the first game, the Lobos fought fiercely, but were eliminated. CSU won the tourney and the NCAA automatic bid. No at-large invites were extended to a Mountain West team.
The 2011 season marked the loss of Williamson, Rhoades and Buck. It also was a season in which Nelson's underclassmen were seasoned by the fire of competition.
Nelson gambled a bit in 2011 by redshirting two of his better freshmen athletes: 6-3 Megan Short and 5-11 Hannah Johnson. It was a logical move with three solid seniors returning and a huge flock of underclassmen: four sophomores and four freshmen, including red shirt freshmen Chantale Riddle.
The young Lobos played a lot. Sophomore Mariah Agre was the starting setter and played in 109 games as did Riddle. Sophomore Miquella Lovato, the heir apparent to Buck, played in 112 sets. Sophomore Ashley Newman saw action in 76 sets and sophomore Lexi Ross played in 94 games.
The other three active freshmen -- Elsa Krieg, Jayla Trombley and Cara Fisher-- played 66, 39 and 109 games, respectively. Krieg, who began the season with a knee injury, ended the season with the highest hitting percentage among the net players at .272. "That's a great season for a freshman," said Nelson.
"There are some things I wish we would have done differently," said Nelson. "There were times I wished I hadn't redshirted Megan and Hannah. But the young kids got a lot out of this season and I think they better understand the commitment and the work ethic they need to bring into next year."
One thing that was constant and consistent with Lobo volleyball in 2011 was the backing of the Lobo fans. UNM once again finished ahead of Colorado State in attendance. UNM drew an average of 2,184 fans -- good for the No. 16 spot in the nation.
"Our fans once again showed people what a great environment we have here for volleyball," said Nelson. "I think the commitment from our fans will be further motivation for our young players."