Aug. 14, 2010
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
In their attempt to take Lobo volleyball up a notch in 2010, the Jeff Nelson Lobos might need to do some re-thinking - and take it up three notches. Because that's what Nelson has done with the schedule he has laid out like a bed of hot coals in front of his talented Lobos.
"We have one of the Top Ten, maybe Top Five, non-conference schedules in the country," said Nelson. "We have taken it up three notches."
Now, it's not that the Lobo players were forced into this meat grinder without a choice. Nelson met with the team prior to locking down the 2010 schedule and he gave them a voice. Did they want to walk the walk or take a stroll down cupcake alley? His Lobos said, "Bring it." So, he did.
"He told us that the schedule he had planned would be very difficult," said senior Lisa Meeter, one of three UNM seniors who are four-year starters. "We all said, `Yes,' that we were ready to take UNM to the next level. We wanted to play some great teams early so we would have that experience under our belts at the beginning of the season."
Said Nelson: "I made a contract with them. I showed them what I wanted to do, but I told them I didn't want to do it unless they were committed. They didn't even hesitate."
For sure, commitment is needed with teams like Tulane, Stanford, Pepperdine, Michigan State, Southern Cal, Hawaii, UC-Santa Barbara and New Mexico State on the slate. The Lobos need to be ready and focused from the get-go.
But what's not to like about this 2010 Lobo team? You have the three seniors/four-year starters in Meeter, Jade Michaelsen and Taylor Hadfield back from the 2009 team that posted a 20-10 mark and a trip into the NCAA tourney.
"We have three seniors who have been four year starters. How often does that happen?" said Nelson. "We get a ton of experience from them, great leadership, and they all have huge roles in what the team does."
Nelson also returns his quarterback/setter in Michaelsen, an all-MWC player. The Lobos return their libero in Allison Buck and a defensive dynamo named Amy Wong. They have two of the top juniors in the conference in Ashley Rhoades and Kelly Williamson.
Nelson also has a handful of freshmen with the talent to challenge for playing time early. He has leadership, depth and chemistry all fueled by great expectation and high passions for excellence.
"I think we have the potential to be a great team. We look good," said Hadfield, an All-MWC and All-American in 2009. "There is great chemistry on this team. We all share high goals for the season and are willing to put in the work to make it happen."
THE LOBO HITTERS
Sure, all the Lobos are allowed to pound the volleyball with viciousness and delight, and they love to do exactly that. But there are a few Lobo high flyers, who are supposed to get the first shot. Lisa Meeter is one of them.
The senior is a solid option to put the ball away and put a point on the Lobo side of the scoreboard. Meeter registered 271 kills in 2009, good for a 2.4 average per set playing in the outside hitter spot. She is extremely motivated in her final year as a Lobo and has a strong shot to crack the All-MWC team.
"This team has great chemistry and we all know what we want," said Meeter. "We have set our season expectations high, but our first goal is to win our first match."
Hadfield usually plays out of a middle blocker spot, but led UNM in kills last season with 292, good for a 2.63 average that helped push her to All-American status. Hadfield had 21 kills last season in a MWC game against Colorado State. Rhoades was fourth on the team in 2009 with 222 kills for a 2.34 average per set. She looks poised to be even more of a force at the net in 2010.
"Ashley is starting to become a dominant player, which is what we need her to do," said Nelson. "She touched 10-5 (ten feet, five inches) this summer. That's ridiculously high for a kid who is 5-11. Ashley is as exciting a player as you can find and she's from right here in New Mexico."
Nelson said he also expects improvement from Kelly Williamson, who should see more playing time with ex-Lobos Rose Morris and Anna Lehne gone from the front. Those two Lobos combined for 438 kills and those points need to be replaced. Williamson averaged 1.2 kills per set in 2009. Nelson also has some young hitters looking for time at the net in sophomore Rachel Barber and freshmen Ashley Newman and Juliane Hanna.
THE LOBO MIDDLE
The UNM middle looks solid behind middle blockers Hadfield and Rhoades. Rhoades, who can almost dunk a volleyball, is the top returning blocker with 100 total blocks in 2009.
Hadfield needs to pick up her stats in that area to replace the 116 total blocks made by Lehne in 2009. The extra playing time up front should bring those improved stats to her ledger.
The two blockers are expected to have a big season hitting the ball at the net. They combined to produce 514 kills in 2009. These Lobos could develop into one of the more dominating middles in the Mountain West.
"I expect us to be better on defense this year and that includes up front," said Nelson. UNM had more proven depth in the middle in 2009 behind the trio of Taylor, Rhoades and Lehne. Nelson said he needs a young player to set up and help solidify the middle for 2010. Freshman Lexi Ross is the only other Lobo listed on the roster as a middle blocker.
"Lexi will see some time in the middle and maybe on the right side," said Nelson. "She needs to contribute this year, so she needs to be on the court."
Said Hadfield: "We have some really amazing young players on this team."
THE LOBO QUARTERBACK
Jade Michaelsen's return as quarterback/setter is like Dairese Gary returning to quarterback the Lobo basketball team or Peyton Manning returning to Indianapolis. Michaelsen is beyond good, a lock for All-MWC honors, and a top candidate for All-American status.
The senior comes into the 2010 season with 3,087 assists and is looking for her third straight season with 1,000-plus assists. She played every set for UNM in 2009 and named to four All-Tournament teams in 2009. She was the 2009 MWC Preseason Co-Player of The Year.
She has great chemistry up front with Meeter, Rhoades and Hadfield, but she also personifies the drive on this year's UNM team.
"Our expectations are to do better than last year," said Michaelsen. "We want the Mountain West Conference title. We want to go further in the NCAA Tournament. We are motivated to do everything it takes to reach our goals. This team wants more and more."
It will be difficult to grab much playing time away from Michaelsen, especially with UNM's meat-grinder schedule. Sophomore Jordan Russell and Mariah Agre are talented enough to give Michaelsen a few breathers this season.
THE SHORTER LOBOS
There is no question that college volleyball players are getting taller and taller. But there is still room in the back for the under-six-foot types. These are the often-unsung heroes who blend a special combination of athleticism and guts that make it hard to keep them off the court.
The 5-foot-7 Buck had 455 digs in 2009. This is a key stat. A good dig sets up your quarterback and sets up your offense. A good dig can take a point away from the opponent and turn it into a point for your side.
The 5-7 Amy Wong also is a Lobo with the quickness and the guts to hit the floor and take away points. The defensive specialist had 170 digs last season. The Lobos will be looking for some freshmen help in this area from the 5-2 Miquella Lovato , who had the versatility to play both the defensive specialist spot and the libero position. UNM also returns the 5-6 Carli Torr, who redshirted her freshman year in 2009.
Of course, front line players can get down and dirty, too. The versatile Meeter had 306 digs last season. "Lisa is a player you ask to do everything," said Nelson. Michaelsen had 216 out of her setter's spot.
"We have some kids who are tough and willing to step in there and dig out some big-time hits," said Nelson. "We should be better back there on defense. Lovato should play herself into a regular role. She is a great defensive player and I've been impressed with her passing.
"This team is ahead of where we were at the end of last season. These are great kids who play a game they love at a high level with a great deal of passion. We decided to step it up this season with our schedule and we will quickly see where we are at.
"I'm also excited for our fans to see this team go against some of the great teams that will be coming in here. It's going to be an exciting season."
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and Sports Columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org