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Aggie Caravan hits Duke City

New Mexico State University athletic director Mario Moccia has vowed to give Aggie athletics a greater presence in the Albuquerque area. Wednesday evening was a start, and there could be bigger things to come.

Moccia and the head coaches of most of NMSU’s primary sports rolled into Albuquerque for an Aggie Caravan stop at the Nativo Lodge. Roughly 100 alumnae, boosters and former New Mexico State athletes took the opportunity to meet, greet and question Moccia and his coaches about their programs and where the school’s athletic department is headed.

As one might expect, the caravan stop was part pep rally. A supportive audience saw video clips of sports highlights from 2014-15 and numerous references were made to the seven Western Athletic Conference championships NMSU captured during the year.

But the gathering was more about building New Mexico State’s athletic brand and what will be necessary to do it. Stirring greater interest and support from fans and alums outside of Las Cruces is clearly part of the equation.

Moccia encouraged those at Wednesday’s gathering to visit NMSU’s campus, attend games and join the Aggie Athletic Club. But he also hopes to reciprocate by making Aggie sports more accessible to fans in the Albuquerque area – possibly in the form of a men’s basketball game in Rio Rancho.

“It’s far from a done deal, but we’re looking at having a regular-season men’s basketball game at the (Santa Ana) Star Center,” Moccia told the crowd. “That’s how committed we are to you.”

Those attending the caravan stop saw it as a positive step for NMSU’s struggling athletic program. Despite the Aggies’ success in various Western Athletic Conference sports, members of Wednesday’s crimson-wearing crowd were quick to point out that NMSU’s split conference affiliations and dwindling fan support at home events are serious problems.

New Mexico State joined the Sun Belt Conference as a football-only member last year and remains affiliated with the WAC for other sports. The alignments don’t necessarily resonate with Aggie fans.

That includes 1963 graduate and booster Charlie Rogers, who attended Wednesday meeting with his wife Suzan, also an NMSU grad.

“Fans don’t know who Troy is and they don’t show up for the game,” said Rogers, referring to one of NMSU’s Sun Belt football rivals. “I’d love to be in the Mountain West where there are natural rivalries. Travel and attendance would be so much better.”

Moccia, who recently attended WAC and Sun Belt conference meetings, was diplomatic about his school’s conference affiliations but said football is the driving force behind realignment and emphasized making it a priority at NMSU.

Football coach Doug Martin provided reasons for hope, pointing out that his program will have a full allotment of 80 scholarships next season for the first time in several years. Aggie Memorial Stadium, which had new artificial turf installed last season, will also have new suites installed on its east side.

“I think if people haven’t been to the campus in a while, they’ll be shocked how much things have improved,” Martin said. “Of course, winning games will also help bring people back and we are working on it.”

Moccia and NMSU officials are already promoting next season’s Sept. 12 football home opener against Georgia State, which will have reduced ticket prices in an effort to pack the stadium.

Susan Thorpe, who attended NMSU in the late 1970s and now lives in Albuquerque, would like nothing better than to see big crowds at her alma mater’s home games, regardless of sport.

“When I went to school there, everyone went to games,” Thorpe said. “When we go now, it’s so sad. They’ve got to find ways to get students out.”

Thorpe was encouraged by a successful “Pack the Pan Am” basketball promotion NMSU held last season and she appreciated Wednesday’s caravan stop.

“Being an Aggie is fun,” she said, “but being an Aggie in Albuquerque is hard sometimes, even though there are a lot of us here. It’s nice for us to have a chance to come together.”