Aug. 26, 2003
After entering a new era last season, head coach Kelley Sliva McKee has laid the foundation for success in the New Mexico volleyball program as she enters her second season as the Lobo head coach. Sliva McKee, who amassed a 143-104 mark in her nine years as a head coach at Northern Arizona and earned a berth in the 1999 NCAA Tournament, is now laying the groundwork for a winning program at UNM.
This year's team is a mix of four returning players, including three starters, and 10 newcomers, all recruited by head coach Sliva McKee and her staff within her first full year at the helm of the program. While many freshmen will have to rise to the challenge of playing Division I volleyball in order for the Lobos to be successful, Sliva McKee expects that the four returning players - senior Anna Reines, juniors Adah Burke and Monica Meihack and sophomore Chelsea Sondrup - will provide leadership and help the team reach its goals.
"Our expectations are very high," said Sliva McKee, who enters her 11th season as a head coach with a 153-125 (.550) career record. "Our primary goal is to get better every day. We feel that if we continue to improve and make positive changes in our game that we're going to be a very good volleyball team."
With a year under her belt at UNM, Sliva McKee begins her second season with a newfound attitude and purpose.
"The biggest thing I learned last year was that as a coach, you always think you know what's going to happen - but that's just a total illusion," Sliva McKee said. "It was very liberating last year. I learned how to be more open-minded and now I'm much more flexible. I think every coach should take on new experiences because it really helps in the long run.
"For me, my primary goal is to be a great leader," Sliva McKee continued. "Last year, I was challenged in every single aspect, and that made me a better coach. Being a better coach made me a better leader. Now, as I enter my 11th year, I am clear on the areas in which I can add the most value to the team."
Sliva McKee has also surrounded herself with an excellent coaching staff - second-year assistant Brent Aldridge and first-year assistant Chelsea Robb - which leads to the positive energy within the program. The staff feels the necessary ingredients are now in place to continue the ascent of the program.
"The main reason I feel like I'm in a groove is because of what Brent and Chelsea bring to the table," Sliva McKee said.
"As a staff we have a lot of fun. Brent is very technically oriented, which allows me to work on team chemistry, leadership and communication, and Chelsea does whatever is needed for the team. We know each other's strengths, we know the game, and we work well together."
Leading the way for the Lobos this fall are the four returning players from last season's team (Reines, Burke, Meihack, Sondrup). While their success will be key to winning matches in 2003, Sliva McKee is already impressed by what the four have accomplished in the offseason.
"We worked with Anna (Reines), Adah (Burke), Monica (Meihack) and Chelsea (Sondrup) in the spring and had a lot of one-on-one time and gave them a lot of close attention, which is paying off huge right now. They understand the coaching staff and they understand the systems we run. All four of them completed their summer goals, and I believe they set a really high standard for the freshmen coming in this year. At some point during the preseason, all four have really stepped up in different situations. I'm really proud of them entering the season."
The Lobos' top offensive threat is 6-4 senior outside hitter Anna Reines, who earned All-Mountain West Conference honors in 2002, making her the first Lobo to make the all-conference team since 1998. Reines led the team in hitting percentage (.257) and kills (421, 3.86 pg) last year, while acheiving career highs in aces (seven), digs (81) and blocks (60 - 10 BS/50 BA). Reines, a two-time Academic All-Mountain West Academic selection, was named the Comcast Invitational MVP after leading the Lobos to the tournament championship and also garnered Albuturkey All-Tournament team honors.
"I think Anna is key to our offense because of what she can do as far as terminating the ball," Sliva McKee said. "But she has also developed her blocking game and her jump serve. Most importantly, she leads through her communication. Emotionally, she's ready to lead this team."
Reines gained new experiences playing volleyball internationally as she was a member of the USA Select Team that participated in the Spring Cup in Brno, Czech Republic.
"Anytime you get outside your normal environment and see what volleyball is like throughout the world, you're going to grow as a player," said Sliva McKee. "Plus, we didn't get to play in the offseason because we only had four players, so the competition alone helped her out as well."
Looking to pace the offense is junior setter Monica Meihack. Meihack had a stellar first season as a Lobo in 2002, leading the team with 1,249 assists (10.86 pg), good for second all-time in a Lobo season. Meihack gained valuable experience last year as she was one of only four Lobos to start in every match. Sliva McKee expects even bigger things from Meihack this season.
"Monica is entering a much healthier environment this year," coach said. "The tough thing about last year was that we didn't have any balance in our offense. I believe Monica will be even more successful this season because we'll have more options in our offense and we'll have have more hitters that will be able to put the ball down. She is coming off a great sophomore year and will continue to grow in her game."
UNM's main force at the net will be sophomore middle blocker Chelsea Sondrup. Sondrup displayed tremendous skill at the net during her freshman season, racking up 131 block assists, which set a new single-season mark in the New Mexico record books. Sondrup also set a new standard for block assists at UNM in one match, compiling 13 against UNLV. All in all, Sondrup amassed 137 total blocks, good for second all-time in a Lobo season.
"Chelsea is extremely fit and jumping about 10 feet right now," Sliva McKee said. "Last year was a tremendous growth year for her. I'm real impressed with how she is entering the season. I think that Chelsea is going to be a dominant middle blocker and hitter. At the same time, we're still working to develop her backcourt game to keep her in the rotation."
Rounding out the returning players is junior defensive specialist Adah Burke. Burke joined the team as a walk-on during midseason last fall, and her energetic play was rewarded at the end of the season as she was named the team's Most Inspirational Player. Burke played in 10 matches and 25 games in 2002 and recorded 25 digs, including a career high 11 against Rice.
"All four returning players made sacrifices this summer, but Adah took the most physical risk in taking her game to the next level," stated Sliva McKee. "She played a ton of volleyball in the offseason and committed herself to becoming a better player. Adah is special to have around - she's very high energy and brings a lot of enthusiasm to our team. After her summer workouts, she is much more consistent and focused."
The remaining 10 players on the roster, all freshmen, will vie for playing time throughout the season. All the players, which were recruited by Sliva McKee's staff, have one thing in common - commitment to excellence on and off the court.
"What we're looking for are players with good character values who excel on the court and in the classroom," Sliva McKee said. "In building a winning program, you have to have a solid foundation with good people."
Two freshmen are New Mexico natives - middle blocker Brandy Atwater and outside hitter Georgia Whitson. Atwater joins the team as a walk-on from Des Moines H.S. in Folsom, N.M. She earned all-state honors all four years in volleyball and basketball and was on six state championship teams (volleyball - three; basketball - three). Whitson hails from Taos, N.M., and was named the District 2-AAAA Player of the Year in 2002. Whitson is a physical, dynamic athlete with a big block and a fast arm.
Three players from the state of Colorado will join the Lobos this season. Lauren Dunsmoor is a 5-11 outside hitter who comes from a very successful program at Pueblo West H.S. and earned all-state honors her senior season. Valerie Finch, a native of Steamboat Springs, Colo., joins the team as a walk-on and may see time at the libero position. Outside hitter Jennifer Heasty (Westminster, Colo.) plays at a high level above the net and will bring size and athleticism to the Lobos.
Jessica Jensen and Kelly Therkelsen, both over six-feet tall, come to UNM from Minnesota. Jensen (Mankato, Minn.), who is 6-3, is a versatile hitter who has excellent size and can hit behind the setter. Jensen was named a Big 9 All-Conference player and also lettered in basketball. Therkeslen, an Eagan, Minn., native, is a big blocker with good ball control skills. She earned All-Lake Conference and all-state honors her senior season while maintaining a perfect 4.0 GPA.
Megan Morris (Los Fresnos, Texas), a 6-2 middle blocker, has the ability to play big over the net in both blocking and hitting. Morris lettered in volleyball, basketball and track.
Lindsay Smith (Bakersfield, Calif.) will add depth at setter and can set up a very up-tempo offense. She won the Davis Volleyball Festival over the summer and earned all-league honors her senior year.
Lisa Dick, from Gresham, Ore., joins the team as a walk-on and will look to compete for time at libero. Dick received the PVC Athletic Award and the PVC Director's Recognition Award her senior year.
Coach Sliva McKee has once again scheduled tough competition in order to prepare the Lobos for the Mountain West Conference slate. New Mexico will face six teams from last year's NCAA Tournament (Fresno State, Cal Poly, Washington State, Sacramento State, Colorado State, Utah), including two in the first tournament of the season.
UNM opens the 2003 campaign Aug. 29-30 at the Fresno State Invitational, matching up against Fresno State and Cal Poly as well a contest with Idaho State. The Lobos return home for the Comcast Lobo Invitational Sept. 5-6 at the Johnson Center, welcoming Alcorn State, Delaware and Youngstown State to the Duke City. UNM then heads to the Washington State Cougar Mania Invitational to face host WSU, Loyola Marymount and Saint Louis. The Lobos host their second tournament Sept. 19-20 when Sacramento State, Ohio and Kentucky come to UNM for the Albuquerque Marriot Lobo Volleyball Classic. The Lobos then host New Mexico State Sept. 22 and open MWC action at Air Force Sept. 26. UNM will face each MWC opponent twice before traveling to the MWC Volleyball Championship, held Nov. 20-22 in San Diego, Calif.
"Overall, I think our schedule is pretty tough," said Sliva McKee. "The two road trips are going to provide us with a high level of competition in really good volleyball environments. My philosophy is that to get good, you have to play good teams."
Although the 2003 Lobos feature many fresh faces, Coach Sliva McKee is expecting several players to rise to the challenge to have a solid year for the program.
"We're just trying to build this team one day a time," said Sliva McKee. "Our focus right now is creating solid systems. Whether we're looking at our offensive package or our defensive package, we have to get across what our goals and standards are within the system.
"I told them that the season is going to be a journey together. If we can come in every day and get a little better while staying comfortable with each other, we're going to be just fine.
"We've had so much fun with this group so far. In a short amount of time, they like each other, the communication is excellent, and they understand what we're trying to achieve. The energy in our gym right now is excellent."
Sliva McKee's exuberant energy toward the game is getting through to her players early in the season. With a determined staff and a healthy team chemistry, look for Sliva McKee to bring consistent success to the Lobo volleyball program.