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College volleyball: Tough opening tournaments on tap for Lobos, Aggies

Time for the University of New Mexico volleyball team to make a first impression.

The Lobos, with two freshman setters and a key transfer starting at outside hitter, open the 2018 season this weekend at the Idaho Volleyball Classic in Moscow, Idaho. UNM takes on Grand Canyon Friday at 5:30 p.m., then faces a Saturday doubleheader against Santa Clara (11 a.m.) and host Idaho (8 p.m.).

As opening tests go, UNM coach Jeff Nelson believes the Idaho Classic sets up well for his team. Grand Canyon and Santa Clara, like UNM, are talented teams with a few question marks. Idaho was picked to win the Big Sky Conference this season and rates as the team to beat this weekend.

“We’ll find a lot out about ourselves this weekend,” Nelson said. “Our scrimmages have been very competitive and I like what I’ve seen from our setters. I think we’re ready to get the nerves out get started.”

UNM finished 16-16 last season but has a number of key players returning, including top outside hitter Lauren Twitty and senior middles Victoria Spragg and Mariessa Carrasco. Senior libero Mercedes Pacheco will anchor the Lobos’ back-row defense.

New Mexico’s improvement may hinge on newcomers, however. Freshman setters Sabrina Bianco and Jaclyn Inclan will share the setting duties. Junior transfer Ty Bierria (Memphis) provides another big weapon on the outside.

The Lobos’ first opponent, Grand Canyon, appears to have upgraded its roster after an 8-18 finish last season. The additions include Annabelle Kubinski, a 6-foot freshman middle from La Cueva High School.

“Grand Canyon has a couple of really good transfers, too,” Nelson said. “I think they’ll be much improved.”

Santa Clara finished 15-15 a season ago and is breaking in a new setter, but the Broncos have a strong tradition and have advanced to NCAA play in 13 of coach Jon Wallace’s 19 seasons. Idaho has nine letter winners back from an 18-11 season, including top outside hitters Kaela Straw and Sarah Sharp, who figure to test UNM’s physical front line.

NEW MEXICO STATE: The Aggies open the season with a relatively short road trip to Tempe, Ariz., where they’ll compete in Arizona State’s Sun Devil Classic. Coach Mike Jordan’s team plays Pacific (3 p.m.) and then face host ASU (8 p.m.) Friday before finishing against UT-Arlington at 11 a.m. Saturday.

On paper, it looks like a tournament NMSU can win. The Aggies (21-8 last season) were recently picked to win the Western Athletic Conference and had three key returnees named to the All-WAC preseason team. They are setter Briana Ainsworth (a Cleveland High alum), outside hitter Tatyana Battle (Cibola) and 6-5 middle Megan Hart.

Pacific (17-14 last season) is the only other team in the field that posted a winning record in 2017. ASU finished 10-22, while UT-Arlington was 13-17.

Jordan isn’t putting too much stock into last year’s numbers. After all, his team lost several key performers, including top hitter Kassandra Tohm and standout libero Ariadne Sierra.

“Playing Pacific and ASU on its home floor on the same day is a challenge to say the least,” Jordan said. “There are no guaranteed wins for us this weekend, but I do think we’ve got a shot. I like the match-ups athletically. It’s just hard to know what to expect on the opening weekend.”

NMSU plans to employ a 6-2 offense with Ainsworth and Natalie Mikels sharing the setting duties.

“I don’t think we have many holes offensively or defensively,” Jordan said. “We’ll find out soon enough.”