Mountain West volleyball’s biggest 2021 surprise, the University of New Mexico, may finally have the rest of the conference’s attention.
Tied for first place with one-third of the conference schedule behind them, the Lobos (14-3, 5-1) hit the road Thursday to begin what is generally regarded as the MWC’s toughest trip. UNM visits Colorado State (9-6, 5-1) and Wyoming (10-8, 2-4) on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.
New Mexico is coming off back-to-back home wins over Utah State and Boise State, the latter a team that dominated two matches against the Lobos during the recent spring season. UNM finished that campaign in 10th place in the Mountain West and was picked to finish 10th again in this fall’s preseason coaches poll.
Going into Thursday’s action, the Lobos were tied with CSU and UNLV (14-3, 5-1) atop the standings.
“We’ve been winning the daily battles,” Lobos coach Jon Newman-Gonchar said. “Every day we go to practice or play a match, we’re focused on what we can do to get better. So far it’s paid off for us, but we haven’t arrived anywhere yet.”
Next up for the Lobos is a program that only surprises MWC volleyball onlookers when it doesn’t finish first. Colorado State has won 17 league titles since 2000 and rarely loses a league match at Moby Arena.
Could New Mexico catch the Rams by surprise? Not likely, Newman-Gonchar said.
“Now that we’ve won some conference matches, teams will scout us and prepare that much harder,” he said. “And we’re going to come up against teams that are bigger and stronger than we are at times, including this week. We’re going to have to play very clean volleyball if we want to give ourselves a chance to win.”
Efficiency has helped UNM climb the conference standings. The Lobos rank first in opponent hitting percentage (.135), assists, kills and digs. They do not feature one of the league’s taller front lines (outside hitters Kaitlynn Biassou and Uxue Guereca are 5-9 and 5-7, respectively), but both rank among the MWC top 10 in kills and points per set.
Newman-Gonchar expects two stiff tests this week facing two of the MWC’s most physical squads in two of its more intimidating venues. Regardless of outcome, he feels good about where UNM stands with 12 conference matches remaining.
“These matches are a good opportunity for us,” he said, “and win or lose, this team will learn from them and get better. When you think about it, we’re playing with two brand-new setters (transfers Melissa Walden and Alia Rasmussen), who’ve only been with us eight weeks. There’s so much room for growth, especially on offense. That makes our start pretty exciting.”