SANTA FE, N.M. — The Olympic sports programs at New Mexico Highlands University have some rallying to do, but the coaches of the various programs are convinced things are heading in the right direction.
Entering his third season at the helm, coach Dwight Combs brought the Cowgirls within a one-match victory of getting into the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference tournament. That’s a milestone the team has not reached in at least 11 years.
“The funny thing is, we’re trying to not have just a great season,” he said. “We’re working on the culture and our fundamentals, and trying to improve. For me, my vision is that we have a sustainable program. We’re really committed to trying to get the best quality in-state kids that we can.”
To that end, eight of the 18 players on the roster are from New Mexico.
“It’s a small population,” Combs said. “The challenge is, the New Mexico kids athletically tend to be ahead of the curve because they come from small towns and they have to play three sports. But they need a little more training in volleyball. The metro-area kids are the only ones who have volleyball offered to them year round.”
The Cowgirls return five starters from a year ago, led by senior outside hitters Cynthia Norris and Tiffany Matchett, and defensive specialist Celina Naranjo.
What’s more, the incoming class looks like it can contribute right away.
“I’m also very impressed with our freshman class,” Combs said. “They can play a little bit. They need to work on some skill sets, but the future is bright for Highlands, assuming we can retain everybody.
The Cowgirls are essentially building from the ground up after a tough 2-11-2 season.
But with seven returning starters and a strong, eight-member incoming class, coach Oscar Mendoza believes the worst is behind the program.
“Our expectations are to pretty much hit some milestones,” Mendoza said. “We definitely want to make the (RMAC) playoffs and we definitely have the opportunity to do so.”
What he finds truly encouraging is that of those seven returning starters, only two are seniors.
“So we’re still a young group,” Mendoza said. “I think the strength of the team is we’re pretty technical, very possession minded. More importantly, the chemistry is good on the field and off the field. That’s pretty hard to find.”
The Cowgirls need to be more defensive minded after allowing an average of more than three goals a game, but that has been an emphasis.
“We’re a team that likes to build up from the back, but we have players, the runners, that can play very direct if we need to,” Mendoza said. “It just depends on the team that we play against.”
He’s expecting big things from sophomore goalkeeper Briana Ruelas, as well as senior forward Tania Salcedo and leading returning scorer Breanna Fatten.
“I think that with the new kids we recruit, they’re not just good players, they’re good people, as well,” Mendoza said. “The returning group has that, as well. We want good players and good people. Every coach always wants that.”
A month before school even started this fall, coach Bob DeVries’ hopes for the season took a tumble when top runner Collins Kurui broke his femur in a freak accident during a race.
“We lost a No. 1 man, a top-15 runner in the nation,” DeVries said. “And we’re replacing him with the person who was going to be the No. 6 guy on the squad in terms of filling out our top five. That’s a big blow. I’m talking about it selfishly as a coach and for the team. For him, it’s his identity. He has been running for 12 or 15 years. For him to lose that, it’s hard to see. He’s managing, getting around on crutches, but that’s significant injury in terms of our team.”
That means athletes like sophomore Oliver Huffman and junior Kennedy Kipkogei will have to make big strides this season.
“I think we’re going to be better than last year, but not as good as we could have been,” DeVries said.
As for the women, “we have nowhere to go but up,” he said after the under strength squad finished second-to-last in the conference meet.
The Cowgirls received an influx of talent starting with Austrian grad transfer Theresa Mosher, who is an aspiring Olympic tri-athlete. Mora alum Natalia Marrujo is coming off a strong freshman season and DeVries is looking for her to step it even more.
Highlands also brought in five freshmen – all from New Mexico – all of whom have a chance of contributing right away.
“We’re going to be really young on the women’s side,” DeVries said. “Eight new faces. We’re looking to be a lot better than we were last year. I like having local kids. I like having kids from Northern New Mexico. They always run with heart. They know how to push themselves.”