It’s reasonable to say the odds will not be in New Mexico’s favor when the Mountain West volleyball tournament tips off Wednesday in Las Vegas, Nevada.
From the Lobos’ perspective, what else is new?
Fifth-seeded New Mexico takes on No. 4 UNLV in a first-round match at Cox Pavilion at 5 p.m. The six-team tournament continues with semifinals on Thanksgiving and the championship match set for Friday. (Click here for the bracket.)
The Lobos’ path to a title is challenging to say the least. Wednesday’s UNM-UNLV survivor draws top seed Colorado State in round two of the single-elimination event. The Rams and No. 2 Utah State receive first-round byes.
Earning a shot at Colorado State would be an accomplishment in its own right for the Lobos (20-11, 11-7). UNLV is a defending conference champion playing on its home court, and the Rebels (21-8, 12-6) are the only team in the field to have swept two matches from UNM this season.
Difficult matchup? Sure, but Lobos coach Jon Newman-Gonchar and his players have gotten comfortable in an underdog role.
“We’re thrilled to be in the tournament,” Newman-Gonchar said, “and we’re as ready to play UNLV as we’ve been all year. The pressure is on (the Rebels), playing at home and trying to beat us for a third time. We were picked to finish 10th. We can just go play.”
Win or lose Wednesday, UNM can lay claim to a successful season. The Lobos finished 4-10 during the pandemic-impacted spring campaign, and few including Newman-Gonchar knew what to expect this fall. The Lobos opened camp with two new setters (transfers Melissa Walden and Alia Rasmussen), and dynamic senior transfer Mmachi Nwoke suffered a season-ending injury on the second day of preseason practice.
“People didn’t know what we had,” Newman-Gonchar said, “and neither did we.”
It soon became apparent that UNM was much-improved. The Lobos started 8-0 and displayed a solid one-two punch with outside hitters Kaitlynn Biassou and Uxue Guereca, the latter being a key piece of the Lobos’ surprising puzzle.
A redshirt sophomore, Guereca came to UNM from Mexico in 2019 and played just four matches over her first two seasons because of injuries. She’s become a force this season.
“It’s been really hard with the injuries but I think those years helped my mindset,” Guereca said earlier this season. “This year’s been really fun and I’m so happy to be part of the process.”
UNM still had obstacles to overcome. Injuries and illness kept Walden and talented freshman middle blocker Elizabeth Woods out of action for numerous matches, but both are back in the lineup now and the Lobos are riding a three-match winning streak.
UNLV presents matchup problems for the Lobos, particularly in outside hitter Mariena Hayden, who leads the MWC in kills and leads the nation in service aces per set. Still, Newman-Gonchar feels like his team is playing with house money.
“Our players are really pumped,” he said. “We’re ready to go take our chances.”