Getting the band back together is no simple matter for the University of New Mexico volleyball team.
Three weeks from an anticipated start to voluntary workouts, coach Jon Newman-Gonchar’s team remains scattered all over the globe. Getting everyone together in Albuquerque by mid-July amid various COVID-19 restrictions is proving to be as complex as some of the Lobos’ game plans.
“Our roster has 12 states and four other countries represented,” Newman-Gonchar said, “so, yeah, it’s challenging. Most of our domestic athletes are driving back to campus, but flight plans for our international players change with the wind. We think we’ve got them all confirmed right now but we’ll see.”
UNM’s roster has been significantly overhauled ahead of Newman-Gonchar’s second season, with just seven returning players (six of whom saw action in 2019) and nine newcomers. Building a team identity has required a creative mix of technology and schedule flexibility.
Coaches have assigned each player a partner to connect with for online workouts. Simple enough, except UNM has players residing in Australia, Israel, Serbia and Mexico.
“We’ve had situations where a player is working out at 6 a.m. with a teammate who’s doing an evening workout,” Newman-Gonchar said. “Team Zoom calls have happened at 2 a.m. for a couple players, which is obviously not ideal, but I’d say they’ve knocked it out of the park in terms of staying connected.”
Time-zone challenges have not prevented the Lobos from “getting together” for what Newman-Gonchar calls “Zoom Zumba” online dance/fitness classes.
“They cheer each other on and have a ton of fun with those,” he said.
Significant changes will also await the Lobos upon their return to Albuquerque. UNM’s medical staff is finalizing a multistep plan to keep players, coaches and staff as safe as possible during practices and matches amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Newman-Gonchar said.
“We’re going to have strict protocols,” he said. “There will be mandatory testing and rules regarding social responsibility. There’s no other way if we want to have a season. It’s imperative to do everything in our power to make student-athletes and their families feel safe.”
UNM’s matches and schedule could be drastically altered, as well. Large gatherings remain banned in several states, including New Mexico, which may prevent fans from attending if restrictions remain in place during the season.
“I sure hope we get to a place where we can have some fans in the seats,” Newman-Gonchar said, “but (live) streaming might be a better option for a while. At this point I really don’t know what our matches are going to look like.”
Newman-Gonchar said he is close to completing a revamped schedule that bears little resemblance to the one he’d originally planned. NCAA volleyball teams will be limited to 26 regular-season matches in 2019 instead of the usual 30 and most, if not all, programs are cutting back on travel.
The Mountain West has altered its schedule, adopting a 16-game format with reduced travel. Teams will play a typical schedule for the first two weeks of conference play, with four matches against four opponents.
For the final six weeks, teams will play back-to-back (Friday-Saturday) matches against a single foe at a single site. For example, UNM may host Colorado State for two matches on one weekend then travel to Wyoming for two on the following weekend.
“It’s a cost-cutting measure,” Newman-Gonchar said, “but we can make it work. We’re all going to have to make adjustments this season and just do the best we can. That’s the reality.”
ROSTER SHUFFLE: UNM completed its 2020 roster by adding three freshmen: Kara Erfurth (5-foot-10 setter, Round Rock, Texas); Emma Smith (6-2 middle blocker, The Woodlands, Texas); Jazlynn Soriano (5-6 libero, Fontana, California).
The additions leave UNM with a squad comprised of two seniors, four juniors (three of them transfers), three sophomores and six freshmen. The Lobos lost four starters from last season’s depleted roster, including seniors Lauren Twitty, Tai Bierria and Maddie Freiwald.
Rachel Murphy, a rising junior middle blocker who started 27 of UNM’s 30 matches, elected to transfer after the season.
“Rachel wanted to be closer to home (Menomonee, Wisconsin),” Newman-Gonchar said. “We were sad to see her go but I respect her wishes.”
UNM has four experienced starters returning (S Jaclyn Inclan, OH Kaitlynn Biassou, MB Yasmin Tan and DS Alena Moldan) but Newman-Gonchar expects stiff competition for playing time in 2020.
“We’re excited about this season’s roster,” he said. “Bigger, more physical and a lot of talent. Now we just have to get everyone here.”