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By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
You can't help but wonder if Lobo Coach Kit Vela was working in bad light when she made out her 2013 schedule and thought all those "So." symbols behind her players' names were really "Sr." indicators - seniors (Sr.) and not sophomores (So.)
Maybe that would explain the mean mother bear of a schedule Vela has laid out in front of her Lobo soccer team for 2013. This is a schedule that would test a veteran club and Vela takes to the pitch in 2013 with nine upperclassmen (six seniors, three juniors) and 26 sophomores and freshmen.
"We are very, very young with an incredible schedule posted," said the Lobo coach.
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Of course, Vela knows her roster and knows that she will throw out a whole lot of youth in front of North Carolina (2012 national champions), Duke (Elite Eight), Texas Tech, St. Mary's, Pacific, Rice, Michigan State, UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis and New Mexico State - before jumping into an improved Mountain West.
Vela also knows why she is throwing her young team into some early flames. You don't get better by roasting cupcakes.
"We are going to grow in (non-conference)," said Vela. "Our non-conference schedule is pretty difficult and it is going to set us up to get prepared for conference and that is what we are really looking at.
"I think conference this year is going to be one of the best ever for the Mountain West. It's going to be very, very competitive. I think it's going to come down to the wire at the end."
The Lobos were picked to be one of those teams charging down at the Mountain West wire. New Mexico was picked in the league's 11-team preseason poll to finish second behind No. 11 ranked San Diego State. UNLV was tabbed in the No. 3 slot followed by Utah State. UNM finished behind SDSU in the 2012 regular-season race and lost to the Aztecs in the MW title game.
There is a chance that "wire" game will be played on the Lobos' turf. UNM and SDSU play on the last day of the regular season (Nov. 1) at the Lobo Soccer Complex.
Vela's roster took a hit the past two years in graduating talent and is bottom heavy with Lobo pups. UNM returns five starters and 11 letterwinners from last year's 11-7-2 team - and a whole lot of youth.
"You are going to see a lot of new faces out there," said Lobo senior Elba Holguin.
Said senior Liz Nare: "It's a young team, but it's exciting and this is probably the closest group of girls from top to bottom that I've ever played with."
The chemistry off the field is excellent and now the Lobos have to work to bring the chemistry on the field to the same level. Vela said that comes with time - and playing time.
"It's going to take us some time to grow and find our rhythm, but our chemistry is outstanding," said Vela. "But you can't replace playing time and experience with anything but playing time and experience."
That means Vela's youth will take to the field. Really, she has no choice with only six seniors and three juniors. Nare is a three-year letterwinner and will be an anchor in the defensive backfield. Holguin, a midfielder, also is chasing her fourth letter as a Lobo. Vela also has three-year letterwinners in Brooke Ellison, Brianna Webster, Ashley Espinoza, and Shelby Luna.
This is a strong core of leadership.
"Our leadership from our six seniors is about as good as I've ever seen," said Vela.
The Lobo lineup will be dotted by youth including in front of the net. UNM lost its leading scorer from 2012, Rachel Montoya, but also lost keeper Kelli Cornell, a two-time MW Defensive Player of the Year who played every minute in front of the net last season.
"It's only a challenge if you don't have anything left," Vela said of replacing Cornell. "We have several good goal keepers. We are very talented (in the net). I think we are in a good situation."
An obvious key for every soccer team is finding the back of the net. In soccer, a team can dominate play, but lose a game for lack of goals. UNM scored 22 goals in 2012 and lost 16 of those goals and the top four scorers to graduation. The Lobo return only one player,Brianna Webster, who scored more than one goal last year. Webster found the net twice.
"I think five, six maybe seven players will step up and give us goals and assists," said Vela. "There won't be one go-to player, there will be several. We're young, but we are incredibly dynamic. There are several players in different roles who can get it done (score) and they're hungry."
Said Nare: "We have people flying from the outside, from the middle -- this group is unreal. They are young, but they are very hungry and they are athletic. They will get up and down that field."
The Lobos posted an 11-7-2 mark in 2012 going 4-2-1 in Mountain West play. The Lobos did not get an at-large bid to the postseason and that obviously is a goal of a program that continues to grow and push itself up the NCAA ladder.
"It's a very talented team pretty much in all positions," said Vela. "We are deeper than we've ever been and younger than we've ever been. Sometimes youth is good. We have so many players who can get it done. They have always been winners and have all come from winning programs and they all have a winning mentality.
"I don't think it's a question of who is going to get it done, but more how many will get it done."
Fans of this dynamic program also find some good news in Vela's challenging schedule. UNM plays 10 home games and will host the 2013 Mountain West Tournament. UNM went 4-0-1 at home last year and ride a 13-game unbeaten streak into the 2013 season opener Friday vs. Texas Tech.
"It means we have great crowds and we love playing here," said Vela of the streak. "There is no place in the country like our stadium."
Said Nare: "Last season was rough because we were traveling almost every weekend and it wears on you a little bit. Playing here, the whole atmosphere is amazing."
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former award-winning Sports Columnist and Associate Sports Editor at The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.