Aug. 22, 2006
The only way to get better is to keep raising the bar. After last season's numerous triumphs, the bar might appear too high for the 2006 New Mexico volleyball team. But head coach Kelley McKee would disagree.
"This is a completely different group than last year," McKee said. "It is a new standard of excellence with these women. The training environment is more stable and we are going to have more weapons offensively. We have depth at each position and a competitive aspect that we haven't had before with everyone vying for a position."
The 2006 Lobos are definitely a different team from last year. Of the 12 women on last season's roster, only half are returning.
"The critical factor is that we have to mesh a group of returnees and newcomers," McKee said. "We are a group trying to figure out how to become a team and it takes time."
McKee's vision for this season is simple: get better every day.
"When I look at last season, we started well but ran out of gas emotionally and physically. We need to start steady, start well, but end playing our best volleyball."
To start the season, the Lobos will host the Hilton Albuquerque Classic, Aug. 25-26. Winners of the tournament last season, they will have to go through Utah State, UC Riverside and Stephen F. Austin to win it all again.
"This tournament will give us a lot of good feedback," McKee said. "Competitively, all three of these programs are coming off successful seasons. Utah State and Stephen F. Austin both went to the NCAA Tournament last year and UC Riverside is an up-and-comer in the Big West."
Following the Hilton Tournament, the Lobos head to Waco, Texas, to play four matches at the Baylor Invitational, Sept. 1-2. The weekend after that, UNM hosts the Comcast Lobo Tournament.
"The mix of teams we are playing in the non-conference season come from six different conferences ranging across the country, which provides us with a lot of opportunities to grow as a team," McKee said. "I think we have a solid non-conference schedule that will prepare us for the Mountain West Conference."
The team's final test before the Mountain West Conference season begins is a home match on Monday, Sept. 11 vs. New Mexico State.
New Mexico opens the conference season on Thursday, Sept. 14, hosting Wyoming. But after that, the Lobos will play five of their next seven conference games on the road.
"Being competitive on the road in the MWC is one of our primary goals this season," McKee said. "The first round of the MWC provides us the opportunity to accomplish this goal. We know that this is an important piece to the big picture and this is an area that we need to see significant improvement."
The Lobos have struggled to find success in the Mountain West Conference regular season or tournament, never finishing higher than fifth, nor winning a match at the championship. However, McKee feels this year could be different.
"Our conference is young right now and it really mirrors our team," she said. "Going into the season, Utah and BYU are the top two contenders but as a whole, our conference is going to be more competitive. There was a dogfight in the middle of the standings last year and it's only going to get tougher."
The 2006 Lobos are full of excitement and ready to take the stage as one of the better teams in the Mountain West Conference. Leading the way are senior Kelly Therkelsen and junior Jennifer Heasty.
"Kelly is leading by example and Jenn has developed into our vocal leader," McKee said. "They both understand the standards of our program, on and off the court, and we are pleased with their leadership thus far."
Therkelsen, the team's lone senior, has definitely excelled both on and off the court. She has been recognized for her achievements in the classroom as a three-time academic all-MWC and a two-time ESPN the Magazine Academic all-district honoree. On the court, she has accumulated 247 block assists, leaving her fourth in the UNM record book with a year of eligibility remaining.
Last season, Therkelsen averaged 2.44 kills per game, which is the most of all returnees, and 3.32 points per game, but expect to see those numbers soar.
"We built our offense around Kelly in the spring and she really blossomed," McKee said. "She has improved and it has been really fun to watch her develop into a six-rotation player. She is going to be one of our go-to hitters and will dominate at the net."
Jennifer Heasty is coming off a redshirt year due to a shoulder injury suffered at the Montana Invitational early last season. In the few games she played to start the year, Heasty averaged 2.14 kills per game and 2.82 points per game.
"We are so impressed with the way Jenn has matured and learned the game," McKee said. "When you sit out, you are forced to just observe and learn and Jenn has maximized her opportunity in this process. We are really getting a more balanced player out of this whole experience."
"Jeanne is a great addition to our team," McKee said. "With time and training, she will add much needed experience and depth in the outside hitter position. Without a doubt, Jeanne will be a major contributor to our team.
"Rose is a physically gifted athlete and we feel like we got the best recruit in the state of New Mexico's 2006 class. As Rose grows in the game and becomes technically sound, she has the potential to be a dominant outside hitter. She has a great passion to improve so there is no doubt that she will reach her potential."
Ideally, McKee would like to have another outside hitter. Normally she would, except sophomore Michelle Miller has been forced to redshirt this season after tearing her ACL in spring competition.
"Joelle comes off a spring training where she really blossomed," McKee said. "We broke the game down technically with her and she came in this fall and has applied the teaching and the training. She has matured and is just maximizing every opportunity.
"Allie is a physically talented and gifted middle blocker. Her hitting is ahead of her blocking right now, but she will help us as she progresses.
"Anna is going to be a go-to hitter for us. She is the best physical athlete we have and she is setting the standard for where we are going in this program.
"Overall, we believe we have a special middle blocking group. We have variety and each woman has different strengths and they complement each other well."
"Kat has made Gayle better every day. Kat will play a significant role on our team, complementing Gayle. Whether one is the libero or the defensive specialist, without a doubt they are both going to be on the court to lead the defense."
One position the Lobos are very secure in is the setter's role. Sophomore Sarah Kwasigroch returns from a shortened first season, missing the final three matches with mononucleosis. Prior to her illness, Kwasigroch was well on her way to destroying program records. She dished out 1,088 assists in just 100 games, the fifth best single-season total at UNM.
"Sarah is a highly competitive setter who made a significant impact on our program last season," McKee said. "She has an amazing ability to make people around her better. She leads this team with her deep-seeded passion to win."
When Kwasigroch was sidelined, sophomore walk-on Tanna Taylor filled in. Now a junior, Taylor is coming into her own as a setter.
"Tanna is the workhorse of the group," McKee said. "Since she walked into the gym a year and a half ago, she is one of the most improved players. She gets how to do all the little things well and she is consistent. Technically, she has made huge improvements."
The team's final setter is freshman Jade Michaelsen. She is a talented athlete out of Tucson, Ariz., who will be redshirting this season.
"Jade has the potential to play all aspects of the game at a high level. She has beautiful hands and has the ability to develop into a dominant blocker and attacker. Redshirting Jade is a great investment in her personal development and in the future of Lobo volleyball."
Overall, McKee sees a lot of really good undergraduates in the group and looks forward to watching them develop and grow into a highly competitive team.
"When a team is young, there are a lot of opportunities for those players to come in and make an impact. To me, it is just about opportunity. With our newcomers, we have nothing to worry about. We have something to look forward to.
"This is the most talent and depth we have had at UNM in my four years," McKee said. "We have a good mix of players who are willing to do what it takes to win championships. Our future is bright."