Stevens: Vela's Lobos Seek MWC Tourney Title & NCAA Bid
Nov. 3, 2011
Mountain West Women's Soccer Tournament -- Lobo Soccer Complex
Wednesday: Wyoming 2, TCU 1 (2OT); UNLV 2, Boise State 0
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobo.com
Is the pressure of the do-or-die mantle that hovers over the Mountain West Women's Soccer Tournament there for all four surviving teams or are Kit Vela's New Mexico Lobos safe?
The importance of this title chase is twofold. You want the title because, well, it's the title. You want to win. You want to hold up the big Mountain West Tournament and you don't want to watch anybody else hold it up.
However, the MW tourney crown also brings with it an automatic bid to the NCAA postseason and that guaranteed invite removes any pressure and any doubt concerning an at-large bid.
The title and the bid are up for grabs Friday when Wyoming battles San Diego State at noon and New Mexico plays UNLV at 3 p.m. On Sunday, the title and the bid will go to the last team standing.
In the regular season, the Lobos were the team standing atop the standings at 4-0-2 and claimed a crown that in many ways is more meaningful than the tourney run. The regular-season champion has to play every other team. The tourney champ might only have to play two teams, if the eventual last team standing had a bye to the semis.
"The conference tournament gives teams new life and another goal to reach for," said Vela. "The automatic bid makes the tournament important. It (bid) makes it relevant.
"It's important to us to win the tournament. We've never done it. You also don't want to leave anything to chance (NCAA bid). Everybody here wants the automatic bid. It's the only safe way to go."
Arguably, New Mexico is the only Mountain West team with a resume good enough to draw an at-large NCAA bid. UNM won the regular season title for the second straight year, this time going unbeaten in MW games at 4-0-2. The Lobos went to the NCAA tourney last year. The Lobos threw out a solid 10-4-4 overall mark that included two losses to Pac-12 teams and another loss (1-0) to then-No. 9 Florida State.
Wyoming and San Diego State are both solid teams and even though they did not beat the Lobos to the 2011 MW title, they did not lose to the Lobos. The Aztecs went into double-overtime in a 0-0 tie with Lobos. Wyoming also played two extra periods with UNM and walked away with a 1-1 tie.
There will be no ties in the MW tourney. Something has to give and somebody has to fall.
"It's important for us to win this tournament," said junior Rachel Montoya. "To win both the regular season championship and the tournament title in the same year would be unbelievably amazing for us.
Said junior Lauren Irwin: "We are on a really good high after winning the conference and beating TCU (7-1). You don't want to take a chance (with an at-large bid), so the best way to go to the NCAAs is to win the tournament. We also want to win it because we haven't done it before."
Vela's Lobos have kicked out a lot of firsts lately. Their 2010 regular-season title was a first. Their 2010 trip to the NCAAs was a program first. The 2011 regular-season title handed UNM it's first-ever back-to-back titles.
The maturity and growth of this program also was reflected in Vela's pre-conference schedule. She skipped the diet of cupcakes and went at some tough chews.
"We had a lot of games early when the ball didn't bounce our way and that allowed us to learn some lesson you don't always learn when the ball is bouncing your way. We've had difficult, challenging games.
"Sometimes you learn more in losing. When thing don't go your way, you have to figure out why they didn't' go your way. You learn how to finish out certain situation or certain games. Here's the discipline you need. Here's what you have to do."
The Lobos of 2011 look a lot like the Lobos of 2010. They still have the dynamic Jennifer Williams up front and the fiery Kelli Cornell at the other end in front of the net. Williams and Cornell repeated as Mountain West Offensive and Defensive Players of The Year. Williams has scored 12 goals and Cornell has given up only 14 goals in 18 games.
There is a lot of good stuff in between those two stars, too. Lobos who have logged more than 800 minutes of playing time this season are: Williams (1,419), Jael Fanning (1,537), Montoya (1,422), Natalie Jenks (973), Roxie McFarland (1,668), Zaneta Wyne (1,154), Amanda Collins (870), Elba Holguin (1,089), Brooke Ellison (1,140) Cornell (1,726), Elizabeth Nare (1,713) and Irwin (1,663).
"We are very similar to last year," said Vela. "We are just more dynamic in how we accomplish things because the girls are another year into the system. We are more comfortable.
"We have a lot of dangerous players in different positions. We are hard to beat defensively because we have 11 girls defending. We defend from the front to the back. The girls are having fun and they are playing hard. It's been neat the way they found ways to win or even not to lose."
The mantra Vela's Lobos need to carry onto the turf at the Lobo Soccer Complex this weekends is exactly that -- find a way to win, don't lose.