The quest for a Las Vegas holiday begins on Tuesday.
After navigating a successful pre-conference schedule, the University of New Mexico volleyball team begins Mountain West competition this week with a pair of home matches. The Lobos (9-2) host Air Force on Tuesday (6 p.m.) and Fresno State on Thursday (6:30 p.m.) at Johnson Center.
The homestand is just the opener of an 18-match conference season but both matches are significant toward one of the Lobos’ primary season goals.
“These players really want to compete in the Mountain West tournament,” UNM coach Jon Newman-Gonchar said. “Everything we did in the pre-conference season was dedicated toward getting better and being prepared for our Mountain West schedule. Time to find out where we stand.”
The top six regular-season finishers qualify for the MWC tournament, scheduled for Nov. 24-26 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“I like spending Thanksgiving with my family,” Lobos setter Melissa Walden said, “but I’ve done that. I want to spend this Thanksgiving in Vegas.”
Earning a spot would be a significant accomplishment for the Lobos, who were picked to finish 10th in the conference’s preseason poll.
The top tier of Mountain West contenders includes defending champ UNLV and Boise State, both of whom received votes in this week’s AVCA Top 25 poll. With other perennial powers like Colorado State and Wyoming in the field, UNM will need wins over teams like Air Force (3-7) and Fresno State (4-4) if it hopes to finish among the top six.
The Lobos did not face a loaded pre-conference schedule but the competition level ramped up toward the end. UNM split home-and-home matches last week against Northern Arizona, which was picked to finish second in the Big Sky. The Lumberjacks won Thursday in Flagstaff in four sets, and the Lobos prevailed Saturday in four sets.
New Mexico posted impressive numbers in the pre-conference season and leads the MWC in numerous categories, including opponent hitting percentage and digs. Libero Alena Moldan leads the league and ranks 12th nationally at 5.42 digs per set.
Newman-Gonchar feels an aggressive service game has been key to his team’s success. The Lobos are getting 92% of their serves in and rank third in the MWC in aces (1.94 per set).
Air Force started the season 0-7 but comes to Albuquerque on a three-match winning streak that includes a victory over Big Ten foe Iowa. The Falcons rank second in the MWC in blocks, led by 2020 freshman of the year Joi Harvey, a 6-foot-4 middle blocker who averages 1.45 per set.
NOTE: Tuesday’s match is Youth Sports Day. Fans ages 12 and under wearing uniform jerseys (any sport) will be admitted free.