LAS CRUCES – New Mexico State volleyball held its final home game of the regular season Saturday, but it isn’t the last time the Aggies play on their home court at the Pan American Center in 2021.
The WAC volleyball tournament will return to Las Cruces on Thursday after being played in Orem, Utah, last season due to COVID-19 restrictions preventing NMSU from hosting indoor athletic contests in Doña Ana County. The Aggies (19-8, 10-4), the West Division champion and No. 2 tournament seed in the conference tournament, play their first match Thursday at 7 p.m. against No. 7 seed Utah Valley in a rematch of last year’s tournament championship game.
The top eight teams in the final regular-season WAC standings make this year’s tournament. Tarleton State, Dixie State and California Baptist – transitioning from Division II to Division I – were not eligible for this year’s tournament. Seattle and Lamar failed to qualify.
“I think (eliminating first-round byes is) actually good for us in a sense to get out there and get our feet wet, but it comes down to three days,” NMSU head coach Mike Jordan said. “The NCAA Tournament is right there if we can play well three days in a row, and I don’t care who we play and I don’t care what order, and I don’t think our players do either. Line them up. Let’s knock them down.”
The winner of NMSU and Utah Valley on Thursday will face the winner of No. 3 Chicago State and No. 6 Stephen F. Austin in the semifinal game Friday.
The winner of that game will then advance to face either No. 1 Sam Houston State, No. 8 Abilene Christian, No. 4 UT Rio Grande Valley or No. 5 Grand Canyon in the championship round Saturday.
Because NMSU is the host school, all of the Aggies’ games will be played at 7 p.m. The games will be streamed on ESPN+.
The Wolverines swept NMSU 3-0 in last year’s title match in Utah, which concluded a season in which the Aggies only played twice in Las Cruces. The Aggies swept Utah Valley in this year’s regular-season series and will play for their third title in four years in this year’s tournament.
“It’s nice to be in your own bed. We had four weeks in a row we were on the road this year, which is terrible, but this (will be) our third (week at home), so that’s a real positive for us and very necessary,” Jordan said. “It allows you to get maybe one or two more practices in here and there when you’re at home instead of traveling, and that’s a big deal for this team.”
Junior Katie Birtcil, a 6-foot outside hitter from Tucson, has been NMSU’s top scoring threat with a team-high 376 kills.
The Aggies meanwhile announced four signees Wednesday: Alex Connatser, a 6-2 middle blocker from St. Petersburg, Florida.; Ashley Herman, a 6-1 outside hitter from Bakersfield, California; 6-1 outside hitter Jayde Shelton from Menifee, California, and 6-1 middle blocker Taylor Snow from Salem, Utah.
UNM: The Lobos (19-9, 10-7) took a big step toward qualifying for the upcoming Mountain West tournament when they rallied to win 3-2 (23-25, 25-20, 17-25, 25-18, 15-5) on Tuesday at Air Force. Outside hitter Uxue Guereca had a match- and career-high 23 kills with just four errors on 42 attacks for a .452 hitting percentage, and recorded her seventh double-double of the year with 10 digs.
“It took every player firing on all cylinders to get the win tonight,” UNM coach Jon Newman-Gonchar said.
The victory kept UNM alone in fifth place in the Mountain West, a half game ahead of Boise State (20-9, 9-7) and with Wyoming (16-12, 8-8) lurking in seventh place. The top six teams qualify for the league tournament, to be played Nov. 24-26 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The Lobos close their season Saturday at Fresno State (11-13, 7-9).
The Journal contributed to this report.