Stevens: Nelson's Netters Face The Odds In Chase Of MW Title
Nov. 17, 2011
New Mexico Lobos Volleyball -- At Mountain West Championships
When/Where: Fri-Sat-Sun -- Johnson Center
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
For the University of New Mexico and seven other hopefuls, all those things lie in front of them when the Mountain West Volleyball Championships hit Johnson Center offering a second season for teams seeking a third season.
The good thing about the MW tourney is all past losses are forgotten (except for seeding purposes) and all teams enter the fray with unblemished records with the chance to surge to the title and the league's automatic bid to NCAA play.
For all teams, including Lobos and maybe excluding Colorado State, this is a big deal. The Rams rolled to the Mountain's regular-season title and appear to be safe for an NCAA at-large bid.
The rest of the Mountain gang -- New Mexico, San Diego State, TCU, Wyoming, Boise State, Air Force, UNLV -- probably needs to be shooting for the title in order to erase any doubts of entering the third season.
That bid is huge. But there are challenges -- and maybe Rams -- between all teams and the MW title.
"I think there are six or seven teams capable of winning the event," said Lobo Coach Jeff Nelson, whose Lobos open with Wyoming on Friday night.
If you had to knock a couple of teams off Nelson's list of possible champions, you likely would start with 0-14 Air Force, which opens with No. 1 seed Colorado State, and 4-12 UNLV, which opens with No. 2 seed San Diego State.
After that, all matches appear to be dog fights. For sure, the Lobos will be challenged to ride through their half of the bracket and into the title game. UNM must get past a Wyoming team that swept the Lobos (3-0, 3-2) and a Colorado State team that did the same thing, posting the same scores.
The good news for UNM is that the Lobos pushed both Wyoming and CSU into fifth games in the final week of the season -- in Johnson Center. The Lobos are tough and inspired at home and usually are backed by rowdy, pro-Lobo crowds.
"We had great crowds last week and hopefully those people will come back," said Nelson.
UNM is led at the net by seniors Ashley Rhoades (403 kills) and Kelly Williamson (360 kills). The defense is anchored by Allison Buck (524 digs), who is UNM's career leader in digs. The Lobos are quarterbacked by Mariah Agre with 1,033 assists.
The Cowgirls are talented and big at the net and have a star in Jodi Purdy, No. 4 in the Mountain in kills with 387. "She is one of the outstanding players in the conference," said Nelson. "A big thing will be to contain her and keep her numbers down."
Wyoming also has a defensive force at the net in Erin Kirby, who has 136 blocks on the year, No. 2 in the MW. UNM has no players in the top ten of this category.
Nelson said even though UNM lost its last two games in Johnson Center, he feels the team is entering the tourney with confidence. He said he saw some growth in his Lobos on Saturday vs. CSU and that growth came in the intensity category. The Lobos got angry.
"I liked the way we played, I liked how aggressive we were and I liked the way we battled, and I think it is going to help us (in the tourney)," Nelson said of his Lobos play against Wyoming and CSU.
The Lobos, 14-13 and 6-8 in league play, can't rely on an at-large bid in order to return to NCAA play. They need to win the MWC tourney and grab the Mountain's automatic bid. That's part of UNM's challenge this weekend -- as is the field in front of them. The top four seeds all swept No. 5 seed UNM this season.
NEW MEXICO LOBOS 2011 VOLLEYBALL ROSTER