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Lobo volleyball team has national potential

UNM Volleyball  players  Julia Warren,, left and Chantale Riddle,, sport their new uniforms
Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal
UNM Volleyball players Julia Warren,, left and Chantale Riddle,, sport their new uniforms Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal
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No symbolism was intended by the University of New Mexico volleyball team’s appearance in sharp new uniforms Monday.

The Lobos broke out silver uniforms with white numbers and cherry trim for team pictures and media day at Johnson Center. No one was talking about silver medals or silver linings, however.

UNM, which received votes in Monday’s AVCA Preseason Poll, is clearly going for the gold in 2014.

“I think based on the first four days of practice and what we’ve seen in the offseason, this has the potential to be the greatest season in a long, long time here,” eighth-year Lobos coach Jeff Nelson said in his opening statement.

Added sophomore outside hitter Julia Warren, “This is our season to put UNM on the map.”

Perhaps it’s just as well, then, that those uniforms appear more charcoal gray than silver. If nothing else they allow for a new look, new season theme.

“Hey, we ordered silver and this is what we got,” Nelson said. “We have another set in red, but the kids like the new uniforms and I think they’re pretty cool.”

The new jerseys gave way to practice t-shirts Monday as the Lobos began hitting drills. As has been the case throughout the opening week of fall drills, enthusiasm and the competition level were high.

Nelson conceded that he’s been less vocal than usual during fall drills because his players have maintained focus without much prompting.

“Our practices have been fun just to watch,” Nelson said. “This team has been a long time in the making and we’re excited about it. And the best part about it is, we’re still young. I think we’re ready to make a healthy run for quite a while.”

Returning third-team All-American Chantale Riddle is the lone senior on UNM’s roster, and there are just four juniors among the remaining 16 players.

“I feel like I have to say more and be a vocal leader,” Riddle said, “just because I am older. But so far I haven’t really had to say much. I’m just trying to work harder than anyone in the (Mountain West) conference to reach that next level.”

The Mountain West has yet to release its preseason poll and all-conference players, but Nelson expects three teams to battle for the top spot: Colorado State, UNM and Utah State. The Rams are ranked 18th nationally in the AVCA Preseason Poll.

The Lobos finished second in the Mountain West last season with a 24-7 overall record and a 14-6 mark in league action. Matching the 10-1 record UNM posted in non-conference matches last season will be a stiff challenge in 2014.

Nelson’s team will take on several traditional powers early in the season, including Texas on opening night. The Longhorns, who won a national title in 2012 and reached the Final Four last season, are ranked No. 2 in the AVCA poll.

UNM then faces No. 17 Hawaii and Oregon (RV) at Hawaii’s tournament in week two.

“We’re starting with a bang,” Nelson said, “but I feel we’re really ready for it. Our schedule affords us an opportunity to have a high RPI and advance to postseason.”

Nelson and his players realize they are setting the bar high that pressure accompanies high expectations. Still, the Lobos refuse to qualify their preseason optimism with too much caution.

“We’re putting pressure on ourselves,” junior setter Hannah Johnson said. “We’re setting high goals because we believe it can be that kind of season.”

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