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Volleyball: Showdown for Lobos, Aztecs

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No one needs to tell members of the University of New Mexico volleyball team who’s coming to Johnson Center tonight.

The Lobos have this one circled on their calendars.

Preseason Mountain West Conference favorite San Diego State – a team that’s given UNM fits of late – will try to play the speed bump one more time.

Hannah Johnson

Hannah Johnson

The Lobos (13-2, 4-1) have won 11 of 12 and rolled to impressive road victories over Utah State and Boise State last weekend, but no one’s overlooking the Aztecs (8-6, 3-1). SDSU has won the last four in the series, including a pair of excruciating five-setters.

Only a handful of current Lobos were around in 2011 when UNM squandered a 14-9, fifth-set lead and fell to the Aztecs. But most of the Lobos remember letting three match points slip away in a loss at SDSU last season.

“We’ve still got a bitter taste in our mouths because of that,” redshirt sophomore Hannah Johnson said. “We really want to show we’ve learned from our mistakes.”

Payback aside, UNM has plenty of reasons to be motivated for this week’s home matches against San Diego State and UNLV. The Lobos are in second place in the MWC standings, narrowly ahead of both the Aztecs and Rebels.

“We can help ourselves if we win these two,” UNM coach Jeff Nelson said, “but they’re big matches for San Diego State and UNLV, too.”

Extra adrenaline could come from the stands as UNM is holding promotions and anticipating big crowds. Tonight’s match is Residence Hall Night with free admission for UNM students. The annual Jam Johnson promotion ($3 admission) is Saturday.

New Mexico comes into the weekend playing well on both offense and defense. Johnson, who was named MWC Player of the Week on Monday, has played a significant role.

The Lobo setter is averaging 10.38 assists per set, spreading the ball around efficiently and doing it much more quickly than she did as a freshman. Johnson credits a stint with the National A2 squad last summer.

“I got thrown into playing so much faster,” Johnson said. “When I got back, coach Nelson said he wanted us to play a faster offense, so I was prepared.”

Johnson is taking advantage of having more weapons. Junior right-side hitter Chantale Riddle still leads the team (and the MWC) in kills, but freshmen Julia Warren and Cassie House have come up big on the left side. Middles Lexi Ross, Skye Gullatt and Elsa Krieg have also been effective.

“It’s been fun for me,” Johnson said. “Having so many options takes the stress off.”

UNM’s defense has been equally impressive. The Lobos lead the Mountain West in opponents’ hitting percentage (.111) and rank sixth nationally in blocks per set (2.89). The latter number is something of a surprise, considering UNM’s front line is not especially tall.

“It’s actually really surprising,” Johnson said. “We just do a good job communicating and reacting quickly.”

Nelson feels good about the way his team is performing but knows how quickly momentum can change in volleyball. He doesn’t want to see it happen tonight.

“San Diego State is used to winning,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll give us everything we want and more.”

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