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Nelson: 2013 Lobos are better than ’12

There’s a reason the University of New Mexico’s fast start feels familiar.

The Lobos are 5-1 – just as they were after six matches last season. In fact, the 2012 Lobos blazed to a 12-1 start before injuries, illness and an almost unbelievable run of bad luck sent them staggering to the finish line.

UNM coach Jeff Nelson is not about to predict another 12-1 start, but he doesn’t mind making a general comparison. The 2013 Lobos, he says confidently, are better than their 2012 counterparts.

“I think we look much better at this point in the season,” Nelson said, “even though we started fast last year. Our depth is much better, we’ve got talent at every position and I think we’ve got a lot more going for us. The ceiling’s much higher for this group.”

The Lobos will try to extend a four-match winning streak tonight when they host Towson in round one of the Lobo Invitational at Johnson Center. UNM will play twice Saturday, facing Abilene Christian at 1 p.m. and Northern Arizona at 7:30 p.m.

From a competitive standpoint, the tournament field is similar to what the Lobos faced at last week’s Lobo Classic. New Mexico won the tournament title by sweeping UC Riverside and Idaho State and taking a four-set win over Georgia Tech.

Towson is off to a 3-6 start, while Abilene Christian is 3-2 and Northern Arizona is 5-1. There’s some bite in the competition: Abilene Christian is coming off a 3-1 win over Texas Tech, and NAU owns a three-set sweep of preseason Mountain West favorite San Diego State.

“We played NAU in the spring,” Lobo junior Chantale Riddle recalled, “and they’re pretty good. They play fast, they play smart and they’re scrappy. That should be a pretty good match.”

The Lobos know less about Towson and Abilene Christian, teams UNM has never faced. Nelson has tried to gather as much information as possible.

“Towson is always successful in (Colonial Athletic Association) play,” Nelson said, “and they usually make a run at the NCAAs. Abilene Christian is just transitioning to Division I, but they beat Texas Tech. That tells you something about their program.”

The tournament represents UNM’s last chance to build momentum for what’s shaping up as a rigorous conference race. The Lobos visit Air Force next week and have just two more nonconference matches after this weekend.

Colorado State (6-0) is leading the pack, followed by Wyoming (6-1), UNM and Utah State (4-2).

“The conference looks really good,” Nelson said, “which is nice to see. A lot of teams have good wins and solid RPIs, which should help us all. The bad news is, it’s going to be a battle every night.”

NOTES: Four Lobos hold impressive statistical rankings going into the weekend. Riddle ranks 41st in kills per set (4.05) and 42nd in points per set (4.64). Lexi Ross ranks 38th in hitting percentage (.419), Miquella Lovato is 52nd in digs per set (4.86), and Hannah Johnson is 64th in assists per set (10.62).