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Lobo volleyball: New faces trying to come together

UNM senior Lauren Twitty, shown at practice on Tuesday at Johnson Gym, is a preseason All-Mountain West Conference pick. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The overhaul at UNM’s Johnson Center is beginning to take shape – inside the facility and out.

New buildings and archways have begun to replace the demolished portions of the University of New Mexico’s main-campus recreational center as a massive reconstruction project progresses.

Meanwhile, inside Johnson, UNM’s volleyball program is completing its own transformation with the 2019 season fast approaching. First-year coach Jon Newman-Gonchar, a revamped staff and a Lobos squad with seven first-year players are pushing hard to get ready for their Aug. 24 unveiling, an exhibition match versus UTEP at Dreamstyle Arena.

That means two sessions a day: three hours of on-court practice in the morning and roughly an hour of video and strategy work in the afternoon.

“The urgency to get better and to do it quickly is there,” Newman-Gonchar said. “With all our new faces it’s still a learning process. More than anything it’s a matter of playing a ton of volleyball, so we’ve had a lot of 6-on-6 work and scrimmages in practice. We’re getting to know each other and the collective effort has been great.”

If the Lobos are an unknown quantity inside their building, it follows that opposing Mountain West coaches don’t know what to make of them. UNM was picked to finish seventh in the league’s preseason coaches’ poll released Wednesday. Perennial power Colorado State was picked first for a sixth straight year and four of the seven preseason All-MWC team members.

Still, UNM’s returning players aren’t upset about any perceived lack of respect. Quite the contrary, in fact.

“It’s actually kind of exciting,” senior Lauren Twitty said. “We know how much work we’ve put in and we’re kind of happy to take that underdog mindset. We’ll just keep a humble mentality, show up to play and see what happens. It’ll be fun.”

Twitty, a returning All-Mountain West outside hitter who also earned a spot on the preseason team, is one of just a few UNM players with a starting spot effectively nailed down. The roster and coaching changes have sparked intense competition for playing time.

That includes at setter, where returning sophomore Jaclyn Inclan and newcomer Maddie Freiwald are making strong cases for playing time. Freiwald only arrived in Albuquerque on July 1, but she qualifies as one of UNM’s most experienced players. The 6-foot setter from Littleton, Colo., is a graduate transfer from Butler University, where she started last season.

“It’s very different here but I’m excited about this team,” Freiwald said. “Everyone’s been super welcoming, and the vibe is so positive, I love it.”

Freiwald and Inclan worked smoothly with their hitters during Tuesday’s morning practice, and Newman-Gonchar said he is considering employing a 6-2 offensive scheme that would allow both setters and additional hitters to see more court time.

Regardless what rotation UNM has on the court, Newman-Gonchar has one concept in mind.

“Play fast,” he said. “We want to bring a lot of defensive intensity and we have to capitalize on our quickness. We’ll even be willing to give up a little bit of hitting efficiency if it helps us play faster.”

The idea of playing at a break-neck pace brought a wide grin to Twitty’s face.

“We’re not the tallest team in our conference,” she said, “but when you play really fast it makes it hard on other teams. It’s hard for blockers to get there in time when we’re hitting, and I think we can also make it tough for teams to score. Playing so fast makes our practices rough, but I really think it’s going to pay off.”

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