Nothing beats a little missing-persons mystery on the opening week of practice.
Johnson Center, the University of New Mexico volleyball team’s longtime home, stood vacant Wednesday and Thursday as workouts for the 2018 indoor season began. The Lobos were nowhere to be seen.
Coach Jeff Nelson and his team started preparations at an undisclosed location in the Northeast Heights. With six new players on his roster (four transfers and two true freshmen), could Nelson have opted to keep his squad under wraps until the season begins later this month?
The facts quickly dashed the drama.
UNM is practicing away from home this week because a recent storm damaged the roof and floor at Johnson Center. The Lobos’ on-campus facility is expected to be ready for action Monday.
In the meantime, the team is practicing on the Albuquerque Rebels Volleyball Club’s courts. They’re as good a spot as any to start building chemistry, which figures to be a key component for UNM in 2018.
“We’ve got a lot of new faces, but we’ve also got a lot of really good pieces,” Nelson said. “We have to build a comfort level playing together, especially with two new setters, but we have a lot of talent here – as much as we’ve had in a long time.”
Oddly, the 2018 Lobos also have quite a bit more experience than the UNM team that finished 16-16 last season. That squad had nine freshmen on the roster.
Three of those players will not return as sophomores this season: Hailey Rubino transferred to Maryland over the summer; Sarah Lobo is attending UNM but opted not to play, and Abbey Willison will skip the indoor season to focus on beach volleyball.
Enter the new faces.
UNM’s four incoming transfers are: Jaclyn Inclan (redshirt freshman setter from the University of Arizona); Makayla Tam (junior outside hitter from California’s Grossmont College); Tai Bierra (junior OH from Memphis); and Fiona Harding (sophomore middle blocker from South Dakota State).
The Lobos’ two true freshmen are setter Sabrina Bianco from Bowie High in Austin, Texas, and middle blocker Rachel Murphy from Wisconsin’s Menomonee Falls High.
UNM’s underclassmen still outnumber their veteran players, but seniors Mercedes Pacheco and Victoria Spragg do not expect this season’s learning curve to be high.
“Even after one day of practice you could see the transfers know what college volleyball’s all about,” Pacheco said. “Last year we had so many freshmen. I feel like we’re way ahead of where we started then.”
“Even the freshmen came in ready to go,” she said. “Last year we had a lot of ups and downs – too many. We need to be steadier and bring up the level of those lows. I definitely think we can do that.”
UNM does have firepower returning. Junior OH Lauren Twitty led the Lobos with 412 kills last season, while seniors Mariessa Carrasco (258 kills) and Spragg (243) ranked second and third.
“We expected to be better this year just because of maturity.” Nelson said. “We didn’t plan to add so many new faces, but when quality Division-I players like Jaclyn and Tai became available we had to go for it. They were at power-conference schools for a reason.”
TO BE DETERMINED: Despite ongoing construction that would restrict home crowds and on-campus parking, UNM’s athletics website on Thursday listed Johnson Center as the site for this season’s home matches. That may not be the final answer.
“We’re working on easing the facilities issues,” UNM associate athletic director Ed Manzanares said Thursday. “We’re hoping to finalize some things and make an announcement very soon.”
Manzanares said in July that UNM administrators were considering holding some or all of UNM’s home volleyball matches at the Pit. Johnson Center’s main gym will not be directly affected by construction, but some entrances to the facility will be closed. As a result, the Albuquerque Fire Marshal’s Office will restrict fans to the gym’s upper seating bowl if home matches are played there during construction.