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Young team gains valuable experience

New Mexico women’s soccer coach Kit Vela was talking to her counterpart at Duke last week when the subject of youth came up.

Robbie Church said his Blue Devils were inexperienced at the collegiate level. Yes, Vela said, but at least they had national and international experience.

Vela’s Lobos do not have that. And that’s why she has scheduled the way she has.

Last week UNM played in the North Carolina Classic, losing 2-1 to the No. 1-ranked Tar Heels (actually leading the defending champs after 50 minutes) and 1-0 to No. 12 Duke.

“We played very, very well,” Vela said. “… We gained a lot of confidence. Our young players left there saying we can do this if we work hard.”

One standout was freshman midfielder/forward Savannah Viola.

“She was absolutely unbelievable,” Vela says. “She didn’t bat an eye.”

And not just the freshmen. Vela singled out senior Ashley Espinosa of West Mesa, who has not had a lot of playing time to this point.

“She was a warrior,” the coach said. “She’s worked so hard to give herself an opportunity.”

Now the Lobos turn their attention to home matches today against Rice and Sunday against Michigan State.

“The challenges will be completely different,” Vela says. “It will be more rough and tumble, more blue-collar. … We’ll have to roll up our sleeves.

Rice (1-1-1) beat Vanderbilt 3-2 last week, while Michigan State (3-0-1) tied No. 21 San Diego State.

Vela says giving her players challenging experiences will boost the program.

“We’ve developed great kids, but they’re still developing, and they don’t have that national experience,” she said. “You can’t emulate this any other way. You can play good teams, but until you play great teams, it’s just a lot of talk.”