NMHU teams take on 'the ultimate challenge' - Albuquerque Journal

NMHU teams take on ‘the ultimate challenge’

New Mexico Highlands University’s Stacy Johnson (4, at left) blasts a winning kill shot against New Mexico in a recent exhibition match in Albuquerque. Johnson, one of the Cowgirls leading returning players, is looking to help the team rebound from its one-win season two years ago. (Glen Rosales/ For Journal North)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

After a year’s hiatus, the fall Olympic sports at New Mexico Highlands University are set to get back into action and try to make up lost ground on fellow Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference squads that did not have to sit out.

Coming off a rocky 2019 season that saw the Cowgirls have more head coaches (two) than wins (one), new coach Tom Duke knows there is no place for the team to go but up.

“To me, this is the ultimate challenge as a coach,” said Duke, who is serving his second stint as the Cowgirls’ volleyball coach. “And for the team to try and turn this around, for us, it’s about getting some wins. When I came in and got the job, these girls before went through some really rough time, so I said whoever showed up for that first meeting was going to keep their scholarship.”

All but one returned, he said, which was an encouraging sign.

Still, Duke went out and added some fresh talent, and dramatically changed the style of play.

“A lot of it is just energy and attitude, and having a strategic plan on what we’re going to do this year,” he said. “We’ve been breaking it down and making sure of everybody’s responsibilities. We had to speed up our offense and run more complicated plays. And we also had to go to modern-day volleyball, which is really aggressive volleyball.”

On the latter, that meant switching from the old-school, standing-on-the-ground serve to the powerful jump serve that can create points off aces and help generate offense by immediately putting the receiving team in a bad position.

The Cowgirls added three newcomers that Duke expects to make an immediate impact:

• Terayah Stukes, who was a junior-college All-American at Glendale (Arizona) Community College. “She’s small, but she’s highly skilled and she can bring the heat.”

• Lisi Langi, an outside hitter who played at New Mexico Military Institute’s junior college, helping the team reach the final eight in the JC playoffs.

• Angelina Oliver, a freshman middle blocker out of Cibola High School. “She’s a really high-level freshman who has taken the starting position right away, Duke said. “She’s balling out and has a lot of potential.”

As for returners, senior outside hitter Stacy Johnson moves over from the middle and is expected to make major strides as a full-time hitter.

Elena Rivera, who won the RMAC high-jump competition in the spring, is being groomed as a libero defensive specialist.

And Camyrn Nelson is showing promise as an outside hitter.

“I felt like these girls were ready and willing to play, they just wanted some structure and guidance,” Duke said. “They’re fired up for this season with a new way of doing things and a new viewpoint. We’re going into the season planning on being very competitive.”

MEN: Although Collins Kurui is the only member of the squad above a sophomore, coach Bob DeVries is optimistic about his squad’s chances this season.

“We had a good spring,” he said. The cross-country guys were able to do some racing. The year ended up, as tough as it was, on a pretty positive note and everybody went into summer looking forward to being fit. Right now, we’re looking pretty good.”

Kurui, who is in his sixth season, was an All-American in 2015 before fracturing his femur. He’s still not all the way back, DeVries said, “but he’s probably at 90% of where he once was and that’s still pretty darn good.”

Sophomore Andrew Amor turned in a strong track performance in the 10K and is counted on to be one of the team’s leaders, as is fellow sophomore John Hall from Pojoaque.

Freshman Benard Kipruto is a Kenyan, like Kurui, and has been showing signs of being a capable performer, DeVries said.

After that, it will come down to which of six freshmen is running best each week, he said.

“We have some depth that can fight for fifth spot,” DeVries said. “We’ll be much improved on the men’s side. I’m looking forward to seeing what our local kids, New Mexico kids can do.”

WOMEN: “We’re going to be better,” DeVries said. “Whether we can crack top five, six, seven in the RMAC, that’s a tall order. It’s tough being a part of the RMAC. It’s an honor because it’s the best cross-country conference in the country.”

In her second season with the team, Faith Lovato has been leading workouts thus far and is turning into a team leader, he said.

For a second helping of faith, freshman Faith Jebet from Kenya has been right there at the front of the pack with Lovato.

“She has run really fast over there at the same elevation, so we’re looking for good things from her,” Devries said. “We’re hoping the two Faiths can be a big one-two punch from the front.”

Local girl Nieves Pacheco from Robertson High School had a strong track season, “and she’s embraced the longer distances and had a great summer,” DeVries said.

Freshman Jewels Leslie out of Wingate was a 3A state champion in 2019 and, while DeVries said he has high hopes for her, it remains to be seen what she can do.

“She’s fit, but it’s a long road for her because she hasn’t had anybody to train with in 1½ years,” he said. “When she races, it will be almost two years since her last race. But she has that heart.”

Coming off an 0-15 season in 2019 that left the Cowgirls arguably one of the worst DII teams in the country after being outscored 76-8, coach Bianca Contreras Edwards has quite a rebuilding task ahead. What’s more, the three players who scored the eight goals have all departed, leaving the program inexperienced up top. So replacing those three players was a priority over the past two recruiting seasons in which the team was the only idle RMAC soccer program.

“I think we recruited a few good goal scorers,” she said. “I’m happy about that for now. We still have a little bit of work to do, but that’s part of the game.”

Allowing more than five goals a game on average also needs to change, but Edwards said she thinks she’s found a solution to that problem by moving senior midfielder Monique Nevarez to centerback to team in the middle of the back line with senior Autumn Stewart.

“She fit perfectly a centerback,” the coach said. “We’ve been training her all last fall and last spring and this whole fall. Her and Autumn have been working really well together. I think our backline will be a lot stronger. There’s more chemistry.”

Overall, Edwards said she expects a better performance despite the obstacles the team has had to overcome.

“My expectations are to be better than the past year,” she said. “And the COVID year definitely took a hit on our girls, not being able to play, even though the RMAC was. It was tough on them and but they kept in good spirits and continued to practice the whole season.”

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