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Lobos set to host tournament in Pit

The University of New Mexico volleyball will have a home-court advantage for this weekend’s Lobo Classic.

Home-court familiarity? Maybe not so much.

The Lobos open their home schedule today with a pair of matches at Dreamstyle Arena, which amounts to something of a home away from home. UNM practiced in the spacious Pit for the first time Wednesday night and returned for a tuneup Thursday.

The relocation is necessary because Johnson Center, the program’s usual home, is engulfed in a construction project that will limit attendance and parking if UNM plays there this season. As a result, this weekend’s four-team tournament, which also includes New Mexico State, Eastern Kentucky and Florida Gulf Coast, is at the Pit.

Comfort factor notwithstanding, the Lobos are not complaining.

“Being at the Pit is more like a professional setting,” senior Mercedes Pacheco said. “The locker rooms are bigger, there’s a video board. It’s fun.”

The setting will provide some extras for coaches and fans, as well. The video board will allow for replay challenges – coaches are allowed three per match – something that has not been possible at Johnson Center.

Playing at the Pit also figures to create a memorable homecoming experience for some players with local ties. Florida Gulf Coast outside hitter Amanda Carroll is a Sandia High graduate, while New Mexico State’s starting lineup features Tatyana Battle (Cibola) and Briana Ainsworth (Cleveland). Brigette Lowe (Eldorado) and Cat Kelly (Sandia Prep) come off the bench for the Aggies.

UNM’s roster features three starters – Pacheco (St. Pius), Victoria Spragg (Belen) and Carly Beddingfield (Bosque) – from the Albuquerque area.

“There really is a lot of local talent in this tournament,” UNM coach Jeff Nelson said. “Three of these teams have impact players from Albuquerque, and I think the competition will be pretty high-level.”

Four matches will be played today, starting with NMSU (2-1) facing Florida Gulf Coast (2-1) at 10:30 a.m. Battle comes in needing nine kills to reach 1,000 for her Aggies career. Carroll comes in with 1,385 career kills, which ranks No. 1 in Eagles history. She’s a two-time All-Atlantic Sun Conference first-teamer.

UNM (1-2) opens its tournament slate against Eastern Kentucky (0-3). The Lobos dropped their first two matches at last week’s Idaho Classic but rallied to beat then-undefeated Idaho in five tight sets with junior Lauren Twitty (49 kills in three matches) leading the way. Twitty was named to the all-tournament team. EKU is coming off a difficult weekend at the Penn State Classic, where the Colonels were swept by No. 6 Penn State, Navy and Maryland Baltimore County.

“We came out of Idaho feeling like we’d improved,” Nelson said. “We played nervous in the first two matches but Idaho was the best team we played and our players stepped up. Hopefully, that carries over this week because this should be a good tournament. We need to play well.”