California, here we come — if only because the schedule says the Lobos have to.
The Golden State has not been a delightful destination for the University of New Mexico volleyball team in recent seasons. Sun-drenched San Diego and Fresno have been particularly dismal.
Still, that’s the Lobos’ two-part assignment this week, and coach Jeff Nelson and his players are ready to accept it. Mountain West-leading UNM (11-7, 5-1) takes on San Diego State tonight and visits second-place Fresno State on Saturday.
Based strictly on records, one might think tonight’s match would serve as a nice warm-up for Saturday’s showdown. The Aztecs come in 5-14 overall and 3-3 in MWC play.
In this case, however, records don’t tell the tale. San Diego State has given UNM fits in recent years and Peterson Gym has been a chamber of horrors. The Lobos have lost six straight matches in the building and haven’t won there since Halloween of 2009.
“That place is a vortex,” UNM senior libero Mercedes Pacheco said. “I’ve never had a good experience there.”
Nelson shook his head and smiled when asked about playing the Aztecs.
“They’ve been our nemesis, that’s for sure,” he said. “But this is a different group, different year. It’s time to go out there and play well.”
San Diego State has picked up its play recently and is riding a four-match winning streak that includes victories over Mountain West contenders Wyoming and Boise State. The Aztecs are led by standout middle blocker Deja Harris, who leads her team with 242 kills and 101 total blocks.
UNM also has won four straight thanks in large part to some strong play by its seniors. Pacheco, middle blocker Victoria Spragg and right-side hitter Carly Beddingfield have taken leadership roles to heart.
“They’ve stepped up,” Nelson said, “and I think our freshman setters (Sabrina Bianco and Jaclyn Inclan) have gotten established. Lauren (Twitty) has been playing really well lately, too. I think we can still play better but we’re trending in the right direction.”
Twitty leads the Lobos in kills (252) and digs (182) and has steadily improved her attack percentage since MWC play started. Spragg paces UNM in total blocks (79) and attack percentage (.312).
After tonight’s match, the Lobos will head for Fresno State and a key match against the Bulldogs (12-6, 4-1), who suffered their first league loss Saturday at Boise State. UNM’s lone conference setback also came in Boise.
Fresno State’s offense is led by senior outside hitter Taylor Slover, who has a team-best 249 kills. The Bulldogs have adopted an aggressive style under first-year coach Jonathan Winder and have beaten Wyoming and Colorado State at home.
“They hammer the ball,” Nelson said. “At the net, serving, they go for it. It’s risk-reward because they commit a lot of errors but their overall numbers are good. They make you play well to beat them.”
Recent history aside, the Lobos say they’re actually looking forward to trying their luck in California.
“We’re playing well and having fun right now,” Pacheco said. “Maybe it’s time to enjoy a California trip.”