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Lobos, Aggies elated to begin ‘fall’ sports

UNM head volleyball coach Jon Newman-Gonchar, left, addresses his team during Friday’s practice at the Johnson Center. (UNM photo)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The strangest collegiate fall sports season on record is underway in New Mexico.

Volleyball, women’s soccer and cross country teams are gearing up for competitions that typically would have been held months ago but were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. A number of “fall” sports teams began practices at UNM and New Mexico State last week, including NMSU’s football team, which sat out the recent fall season.

Much remains to be worked out in terms of scheduling as New Mexico’s public health order still prohibits home games/matches, but it’s fair to say fall sports coaches and athletes are excited to finally get started. Home practices were cleared for the state’s collegiate teams last week.

“We’ve been crawling out of our skins waiting for this,” UNM volleyball coach Jon Newman-Gonchar said. “I told our players they were welcome to show up early and do some individual work on the first day if they wanted to. Everyone showed up, so we just started practice early. That kind of tells you where we are.”

The NCAA’s delayed women’s volleyball season officially started Friday, but UNM is not scheduled to play until Feb. 5 when Mountain West competition begins. New Mexico State is set to open Monday with a “home” match against Dixie State in Tucson as the Western Athletic Conference opted to tip off on the first available weekend.

A later start is just as well for UNM, which is still completing its mandated quarantine schedule. Ten of the 15 players on Newman-Gonchar’s roster had cleared quarantine Friday, with the other five expected to join them on the court soon.

Practice has a decidedly different look with players required to wear masks except during water breaks.

“It’s a massive change,” Newman-Gonchar said, “but I expect we’ll be wearing masks for most, if not all, of our matches this season. I’ve asked our players to wear masks as much as possible even when they’re at home just to get used to it.”

The UNM and NMSU fall programs now have seasons to anticipate, but their schedules include a slew of TBAs for home contests. Both schools’ athletic directors said Friday they are still working to finalize venues for various games, but both remain hopeful that their teams will be allowed to play home at some point this spring.

“We continue to have conversations with the Governor’s office,” UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez said. “As things continue to improve with vaccines and following the health guidelines, we hope we’ll be able to play at home in the near future.”

Nuñez does not expect clearance in time for UNM volleyball’s opening series, set for Feb. 5 and 6 against Nevada in Albuquerque. He said the Lobos will likely play early series on the road rather than at neutral sites.

UNM women’s soccer released its 10-match schedule this week, but the Lobos are set to begin in March with two road matches and do not have a home date until March 13. New Mexico’s cross country teams are scheduled for just two regular-season meets, Feb. 1 and 19, in Las Vegas, Nevada, prior to the MWC Championships, which are being hosted March 5 by UNLV.

New Mexico State’s fall teams may be in the market for neutral venues as their seasons continue. Athletic director Mario Moccia said NMSU’s volleyball team is likely to “host” some of its upcoming WAC matches in El Paso, and women’s soccer could do the same if home contests remain prohibited. The Aggies are scheduled to open at home Feb. 18.

New Mexico State’s spring football schedule also remains a work in progress, Moccia said. The Aggies opened practice Friday and have home games scheduled against Tarleton State (Feb. 20), New Mexico Highlands (Feb. 27) and Dixie State (March 6).

“We have several options if we can’t play at home,” Moccia said. “We’re looking at the Sun Bowl (in El Paso), playing on the road or at some other neutral venue. Nothing is decided yet.”

Both Nuñez and Moccia said the logistics of playing fall sports without home games will be challenging. Both schools’ basketball teams are midway through their seasons and traditional spring sports such as baseball, softball and tennis have opening days set in February.

Even so, the prospect of home practices and a long-awaited, long-delayed fall season have coaches and athletes at both schools feeling upbeat.

“You may not be able to see it under the masks, but our players are smiling a lot right now,” Newman-Gonchar said. “It’s been well over a year since our last match. We’re excited.”

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