Nov. 2, 2010
2010 Mountain West Conference Women's Soccer Tournament.
When/Where: Weds-Thurs-Saturday - San Diego, Calif. (all times MT)
Wednesday: Utah (No. 4) vs. UNLV (No. 5), 1 p.m.; San Diego State (3) vs. Wyoming (6), 4 p.m. .
Thursday: New Mexico (1) vs. Utah/UNLV winner; 1 p.m.; Brigham Young (2) vs. SDSU/Wyo winner, 4 p.m.
Saturday: Championship game, 1 p.m. .
Results: On GoLobos.com, The MWC.com.
TV: The Mtn. - Thursday's semis live.
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
It is a season that really began in 2001 because the special year the Kit Vela Lobos are throwing out in 2010 is another step on the ladder-climbing process called building a program.
In a way, the lumps and the baby steps taken in 2001 by Shelly Hammock, Nicole McCarty, Erchen Theys, Michelle Longmire - just to name a few - have turned into the 11-1-5 mark posted by the current crop of Lobo champions.
That first season of 4-12-2 has turned into the victories the No. 1 seed Lobos carry into this week's Mountain West Conference Tournament at San Diego State. The process has taken a huge step forward. So many Lobos deserve a piece of this success:
The Lobos probably are a lock to at least snatch an at-large NCAA bid at the conclusion of the MWC tourney. If UNM goes NCAA dancing, it will another first for this program. The NCAA Selection Committee probably is taking a hard look at Brigham Young and San Diego State, too.
The good news for UNM in San Diego is the Lobos get a first-round bye and can only play No. 2 seed BYU or No. 3 seed SDSU in the championship game.
An obvious advantage to winning the 2010 MWC tourney is grabbing that automatic at-large bid. Another plus is that the 2010 champion gets to host the 2011 MWC tourney. If BYU, a six-time champ, wins the 2010 title, the MWC runners-up gets to host since BYU has downscaled by joining the West Coast Conference in 2011.
Yes, the Lobos have come a long way, but this isn't a program expecting success to end anytime soon.
The threads it takes to build a program and change a culture goes back to the fabric of the roots. Those roots came in 2001 when Kit Vela and her husband, Jorge Vela, decided to leave assistant spots at Southern California and take a chance on a no-name program called New Mexico.
It was a UNM program that had some moderate success in its past: 11-5-1 in 1993, 15-5 in 1997. But UNM had posted three consecutive losing seasons of 4-13-2, 6-13-1 and 7-12-0 prior to the Vela's arrival.
The first year was a tough one. UNM rolled out a 4-12-2 overall mark, but the roots of a culture were still being formed that season. The Vela Lobos snapped a seven-game, no-win skid (0-6-1) and upset No. 12 Kentucky at Kentucky. The Lobos got hot at the end of the MWC run and threw out a 3-2 finish. Vela was named MWC Coach of The Year.
"There wasn't a whole lot of winning before we came here and we had to work to establish a winning program," said Vela. " It's hard to get athletes to learn how to win when they are used to losing. That was our first challenge.
"The attitude when we got here was, `Let's go out and not try to lose so badly." We had some building to do.
"We didn't come here looking for instant success. We had to change the culture, change the mentality, put in our system, and work hard to steadily get better talent in. When you have better players matriculating through your program, that helps you win at higher and higher levels."
In 2002, the change in the Lobos' record and attitude was dynamic. UNM went 12-8. But there also was another change that would lead to a few more growing pains in this program. Vela's foundation of Lobos was young and green. That youth movement led to seasons of 3-12-4 in 2003 and 5-12-0 in 2004.
The answer was obvious. UNM threw out four consecutive win seasons with eight victories: 2005-2008. In the first season of that eight-win run (2005), the Lobos played in the MWC tourney's championship game.
"We lost 1-0 in overtime to UNLV for the title," said Vela. "But that class and the stride it made really pushed us into motion."
The forward motion took a major jump in 2009 when UNM posted a 13-5-2 mark. It was a young team talented enough to challenge for a MWC title, but probably not experienced enough to really know how to do it.
UNM returned 10 of 11 starters this season and a lot of those pups had been through the grind of MWC play in 2009. They understood better what it took to win. They had work ethic, skills, team speed, and confidence. That can be a deadly combination.
"Of course, good players make you a better coach," said Vela. "But you have to create an environment and provide a philosophy that makes players and a program better. We believe in hard work and a blue-collar attitude. You look for team players, who are skilled players, but who want to be part of that type of environment."
The word "part" is a key to Vela's program. When you become a Lobo you are a "part" of a team and a "part" of a family. There are no special favors passed out here. You get what you work for.
"Our talent level keeps getting better and the pedigree of the players looking at us has gone up," said Vela. "More kids are noticing us, but we don't have any national-pool players on our team.
"Maybe that will change, but one thing that won't change is bringing in kids who want to work hard and who are all about team and have a passion for soccer and a passion to get better. It would be tough to come into our program without that passion because of all the work we put in."
Soccer often is called an unfair game because of the "lucky" and "unlucky" factors that come into play. But that old adage, "The harder you work, the luckier you get," applies to this program and this special team.
These Lobos are doing things that all athletes like to do - get better, win games. "What raises eyebrows is winning and beating good teams," said Vela. "And winning builds winning. This kind of a season turns more heads in our direction and I'm sure there are people thinking, `What's going on over at New Mexico?'"
What's going on in 2010 is a special season formed by blue-collar team with more than a few skills and a self belief as wide as the New Mexico sky.
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and Sports Columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org