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UNM beach volleyball set to open what could be final season

The University of New Mexico beach volleyball team might need to keep a few extra items in its equipment bag this season.

Duct tape, for example.

With a patched-together roster and nothing resembling long-term certainty, the Lobos open the 2019 season today in Phoenix. UNM takes on host Grand Canyon to open a two-day tournament, then faces Loyola Marymount and Arizona State on Saturday.

To say the upcoming season will be challenging for the Lobos would be a significant understatement. UNM has announced it will cut the program as one of four sports set to be eliminated in a cost-cutting move this summer.

As a result, coach Pauline Manser’s team has 11 players on its roster with 10 required for team competition. Just five of the current Lobos played for UNM’s beach team last season.

“Yes, it has been interesting trying to manage things with the program finishing,” said Manser, a former Lobo All-American who worked under former head coach Jeff Nelson for the past four seasons. Manser applied for the head coaching job when Nelson’s contract was not renewed in December but Jon Newman-Gonchar was hired to take over the school’s indoor program.

“The staff change has complicated our situation,” Manser added, “but I have to give these players credit. The team’s very positive and ready to play. The girls plan to have a positive experience and end on a high note.”

Junior Emily Nenninger, one of the returnees from last season’s 9-14 squad, said players are keeping their focus on things they can control.

“No one’s happy about the sports that got cut,” Nenninger said, “but our goal with that is not to let it affect our season. We’ve decided to just keep playing, come together as teammates and support each other. We have to be mentally strong.”

Love of the game has been an important part of UNM’s beach program, which has operated on a shoestring budget throughout its five-year run. The team has just one dedicated scholarship with remaining roster spots filled by indoor/crossover players and walk-ons.

The Lobos practice on sand courts outside Lucky 66 Bowl and have played just one home event each season. The vast majority of their travel is done in vans.

Still, news of the program’s impending demise took a toll. Sophomore Erin Martin, who was part of UNM’s No. 1 pairing last season, opted to transfer. Replacing Martin and the 2018 team’s three seniors has been difficult, Manser said.

Difficult but not impossible.

Newcomers include Dali Rosado, a graduate student who recently completed her indoor career at Minnesota, and freshmen Joey Benson (Buckeye, Ariz.) and Claire Nenninger (an Eldorado High alum and Emily’s younger sister).

The Lobos also added indoor players Jaclyn Inclan, Makayla Tam and Morgan Schreckler to join returnees Yasmin Tan, Carly Beddingfield, Lauren Twitty and Abbey Willison. Schreckler was on the beach roster last year but did not play because of injury.

As for what UNM can accomplish on the sand this season, who knows? All five of the Lobos’ pairings will feature new partnerships this weekend, but Manser says there is talent on the roster.

“There are definitely matches on the schedule we can win,” Manser said. “Our goal is just to play smart, technical volleyball and make the top teams play their absolute best to beat us. We want to play like what we are, a team with nothing to lose.”

Tan agreed.

“It’s still a privilege to be a Lobo,” she said. “It’s a treat to put on the uniform no matter what else is happening around us. I say we leave it all on the court. If this is the last season, make it the best one.”