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From around globe, UNM volleyball preps for fall

UNM volleyball coach Jon Newman-Gonchar, talking with players above in an April 2019 practice, is now spearheading an offseason program with players from afar. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Social distancing? The University of New Mexico volleyball team has it covered.

During what would normally be their spring preparation season, coach Jon Newman-Gonchar and his players are spread all over the globe.

“Yeah, from Israel to Los Lunas,” Newman-Gonchar said with a laugh. “Not ideal, obviously, but every program is in this situation. Keeping people safe and healthy is the most important thing right now.”

Compared to winter or spring sports programs, which had everything from postseason play to the majority of the regular season cancelled because of coronavirus restrictions, fall athletic squads like women’s volleyball have thus far faced minimal interruption. The Lobos were able to get nearly seven weeks of spring workouts in before on-campus activities were called off for the rest of semester.

The time was helpful for UNM’s coaching staff, which will have a dramatically different roster to work with in Newman-Gonchar’s second season. Two new additions, outside hitters Kali Wolf and Hayley Torres, were able to join the team for its abbreviated spring. The 6-foot-2 Wolf graduated early from her Minnesota high school, while the 5-8 Torres (a Los Lunas High alum who won two prep state titles with the Tigers) transferred from California’s MiraCosta College after two seasons there.

Nor has the shutdown significantly impacted recruiting for next season. In the past few weeks, the Lobos have signed 6-5 prep outside hitter Tori Tua, and added two middle blockers with international experience via transfer. Avital Jaloba, a 6-2 junior from Israel, played at Arizona State the past two years, while Milica Djukic, a 6-foot junior from Serbia, played two seasons at Kansas’ Colby Community College.

The Lobos were relatively undersized at the net last season, something Newman-Gonchar knew he had to address.

“We didn’t have a lot of height or depth at middle blocker,” he said. “That means your players aren’t able to practice against height and it’s a tough adjustment when you face a tall team. I think our two new middles put us a lot closer to the top of the (Mountain West) at that position. They’re recruiting home runs in both cases.”

UNM finished 11-18 in 2019 but won five of its final seven matches to take some momentum into the offseason. Three seniors (outside hitters Lauren Twitty, Tai Bierria and setter Maddie Friewald) exhausted eligibilIty last fall.

Newman-Gonchar expects to have nine returning players and add three more signees in the coming weeks. The additions figure to include at least one setter as rising junior Jaclyn Inclan is the only returnee at that position.

“I can’t make any announcements yet, but (Inclan) won’t be our only setter,” Newman-Gonchar said.

High-flying outside hitter Uxue Guereca, who excelled for the Mexican National Team, is also set to make her UNM debut. The 5-7 freshman took a medical redshirt after undergoing shoulder surgery in 2019, but Newman-Gonchar says she has fully recovered.

Newman-Gonchar said he communicates regularly with his widely scattered players and is encouraging them to do as many volleyball-related and physical-conditioning drills as possible during the current shutdown. He hopes the Lobos can regroup to start preseason practices on time in late July or early August but understands how fluid things remain during the current health crisis.

UNM’s fall schedule is essentially finished but Newman-Gonchar does not plan to release it until things are more certain. The good news, he said, is that attendance at the Lobos’ Johnson Center home is not expected to be limited by construction as it has been for the past two seasons. Nor will UNM have to play its entire non-conference schedule on the road as it did in 2019.

“Right now, the focus is on health, academics and staying physically prepared,” Newman-Gonchar said, “but we are excited about the fall. Last year’s group had to hang in there knowing help was on the way. That help is starting to arrive.”

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