Stevens: New Mexico Lobos Volleyball - 2012 Season Preview
Aug. 15, 2012
Lobos to battle Alumni Stars: UNM will host its annual alumni match at 6 p.m. on Saturday (Aug. 18) as part of a number of weekend events. Prior to Saturday's match, there will be a 10 a.m. brunch at The Frontier followed by an alumni vs. alumni match at 11:30 a.m. in Johnson.
A number of former Lobo greats will be attending the event including: Reta Dominguez, 1992-95; Jeanne Fairchild, 2006-08; Sheila Mendez Clinton, 1990; Tammy Lunsford Kubly, 1988-89; Maria Gurreri, 1987-90; Shannon St. Denis Maize, 1991-92; Laurel Luman Perini, 1990-93; Vanessa Shields Smith, 1998-99, 2001-02; Kelly Therkelsen Schlagel, 2003-06; Pauline Manser, 1988-91; Chelsea (Sondrup) Sherwood, 2002-05; Lisa Frost Yost, 1989-91; Marlo (Pennington) Maxo, 1985-88; Allie Suiter, 2006-09; Allison Buck, 2008-11; Ashley Rhoades, 2008-11.
New Mexico Lobos Volleyball - 2012 Season Preview
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
A simple statement from Lobo Coach Jeff Nelson helps to bring the New Mexico Lobos' 2012 volleyball season into perspective - maybe a blurry perspective. There is much to find out.
"It's a time to evolve," said Nelson. "There is a little mystery. We are in a transition period. It's a new team."
The mystery comes from Nelson losing three top-shelf players and replacing them with more of a team-like unit with a handful of Lobos, who probably will become top-shelf players. Nelson likes his talent, his athleticism and his depth. But there are a lot of Lobo pups.
"I think we'll do some things that people might not expect," he said. "I think the loss of three outstanding players (Kelly Williamson, Ashley Rhoades, Allison Buck) led some people to write us off. But we have filled our needs. This is a group that will play together for a couple of years and they have a great outlook on it."
Nelson has a great outlook on the 2012 season, too. His Lobos got some preseason motivation from the Mountain West Preseason poll that slapped the Lobos down into the No. 6 slot.
The No. 6 slot is not what this program is accustomed to seeing, but it might have been difficult to crack the Mountain's top three. Colorado State (1), San Diego State (2) and Wyoming (3) are experienced and loaded with talent. The Rams picked up seven of the eight first-place votes and the Jodi Purdy-led Cowgirls picked up one first-place nod.
The Lobos challenge isn't to prove the pollsters wrong. It's to gain D-I experience, build team chemistry and skills through competition - and then prove the pollsters wrong. It could happen. This squad is loaded with talent.
However, there are some question marks. A lot of Nelson's 2012 jumping jacks have not been deep in the trenches of D-I warfare. They have much to learn and probably will learn some of those lessons the hard way.
"We know we will stub our toes a few times," said Nelson.
Nelson has backed off his scheduling a bit with this young squad and isn't going to throw them to the wolves.
"I think it's perfect for what this team needs," he said. " It doesn't feature the Nebraska or the Stanford of the past couple of years, but I don't think we needed to (play them) right now. We are committed to getting our youth confident at playing college volleyball. We'll move them into those (more challenging) matches."
Nelson said a lot of the staples of a successful team and season are there. The Lobos play solid defense. They have good passing and ball control. They serve well. "We need to expand on those things," said Nelson.
Of course, the front line also is key in volleyball. You don't win without digs and sets, but the spike is often the finishing touch. Do the Lobos have a go-to hammer on the front line? Nelson says, "Yes."
The hammer's name is Chantale Riddle.
"She was only in her first year last year," said Nelson. "I think she is going to have an amazing career here. Every day in practice she does something that gets us excited. She is a go-to hitter and really established her blocking and hitting over the summer."
The 6-foot Riddle is the most accomplished returner up front. She was No. 3 on the team in kills with 199 -- behind Rhoades and Williamson. Riddle came to UNM out of Roswell, N.M., where she was considered one of the state's top all-around athletes as an All-State performer in three sports - volleyball, basketball and track.
The Lobos lost a lot of defense in Buck (561) digs, but the 5-foot-2 Miquella Lovato had 281 digs last season and appears poised to fill that hole with excellence and courage.
"Miquella has been amazing in preseason," said Nelson. "And two freshmen, Ashley Kelsey and Alijah Gunsaulus, have been looking good. The backcourt might be the strongest we've been since I've been here."
Nelson traditionally loses some extremely talented and accomplished Lobos, but has the obvious stars waiting on deck. He lost Lisa Meeter, Jade Michaelsen and Taylor Hadfield two seasons back and replaced them with Kelly Williamson, Ashley Rhoades and setter Allison Buck. Now, that trio has moved on.
Nelson might have similar talent waiting in the wings this year, but they are more in the unknown category.
"It's really different than any of the seasons I've been here before," said Nelson. "We are extremely young, but we have great leadership. It's an interesting dynamic. I have seven kids in the lineup who are above the (basketball) rim and touching over 10 feet and I've never had that."
There are probably at least three points to make about the Lobo dynamics:
1. It's young.
The leadership part is important and maybe a bit of a surprise because of all that youth. But there is one motivated senior on the squad -- Jordan Russell -- who has stepped into that leadership role.
"We have one of the strongest leaders we've had since I've been here in Jordan Russell," said Nelson. "Her role as a leader has been tremendous and we've had the best spring we've had in the six years I've been here."
What Nelson hopes to see now is leadership and a good spring convert to winning matches on the court. Those wins won't come easy and aren't expected to come easy in the Mountain West race where the Lobos have been tabbed to finish below five teams.
"We have a lot of youth, but it might be the strongest recruiting class we've ever had," said Nelson. "We're excited. We are younger and the coaches are being more patient, but we also are pushing them harder than we ever have.
"I like the way the players have responded. The team has that youthful exuberance, but they are a bit cat-like. It's like they are sitting back waiting to see what happens."
Those waiting Lobos aren't exactly alone. Nelson is waiting to see what happens, too - but he's not worried.
"With the talent and the athleticism we have, I think we are going to surprise some people and have some big wins this year," said Nelson. "There also is the chance for a letdown when they are so youthful. We have to keep moving forward through the good and the bad stuff.
"I think we have the athleticism to play with them and beat all of them, but it comes down to our experience and how we hold up," said Nelson.
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and Sports Columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.