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Aug 15, 2013

New Mexico Lobos Volleyball -- 2013 Season Preview

By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/

It is a New Mexico team with several cores. There is the core of proven ability, the core of youth, and the core of aggressive quickness.

Now, will those cores mesh into the Lobo team that Coach Jeff Nelson envisions?

What Nelson says he sees is "a lot of good things." He also sees a lot of Lobo talent. What he envisions is a Lobo team that could be exceptional, could win the Mountain West titles and should return to the NCAA wars.

But a few things need to happen.

Chemistry is one of those things. That element gets a head start with UNM's core of proven ability at the D-I level. The Lobos return five regular starters and seven letterwinners headlined by junior Chantale Riddle, an AVCA All-America honorable mention in 2012, who might be the most dynamic player in the Mountain West at the net.

The All-Mountain West Riddle also made the AVCA All-West Region First Team and topped the Mountain in kills while setting a UNM program record for single-season points.

"We knew Chantale Riddle would do big things for us again," said Nelson of his pre-season evaluation of his Lobos.

There is a lot of talent around Riddle, too.

Senior Miquella Lovato led the Mountain in digs and was the conference Libero of the year. She gives the Lobos that all-important anchor of hustle on the back line. Hannah Johnson is the top returning setter and Nelson says she "looks the best she's ever looked." He also says Johnson is "the fastest setter in the conference and the best blocking setter in the conference."

Those three Lobo standouts give the team some marque talent at key positions. But there is a lot of talent around Riddle, Lovato and Johnson. Lexi Ross and Lena Skipper add senior leadership plus proven production. They both played in all 33 games in 2012 for the 20-13 Lobos and Skipper was No. 2 on the team in kills behind Riddle.

This is a solid five and you add more experience with 6-2 Elsa Krieg and 5-11 Skye Gullatt. These seven Lobos have been through the D-I wars and understand the long grind of a season.

Then you throw in a freshman class that Nelson says "we've touted as maybe our best freshman class ever."

With the front-line talent and the experience Nelson returns, you might expect these Lobo pups to sit the pine or maybe consider a redshirt year. Nelson says they are too talented not to be on the court and they also give Nelson "talent and depth at every position."

Julia Warren, a 6-foot-1 hitter, comes out of Albuquerque's La Cueva High. She was a All-American along with 6-2 Devanne Sours of Tatum (N.M.) High. The 6-2 Cassie House comes to UNM from Rio Rancho's Cleveland High where she was a Class 5A champion in 2012. UNM also adds 5-7 Danielle Ortiz from Los Alamos High and 5-4 Maddie Mayfield from La Cueva.

That fivesome of first-year Lobos from New Mexico soil is joined by 5-9 freshman Lise Rugland from Norway and 5-7 Sara Stelzer from Albuquerque's Hope Christian, who is a redshirt freshman. The 6-foot Ashley Kelsey, a redshirt freshman from Hawaii, was lost during the 2012 season to injury.

"It's so exciting for all of us to come here and play together," Warren said. "So many of us played against each other in high school and have been rivals and enemies on the court. Now we get a chance to be teammates and work toward the same goal. I've been waiting a long time for this."

Nelson has gone through several seasons recently where he was challenged to replace huge holes left by graduating talent. It's fair to say there are no major holes to fill from 2012. Alijah Gunsaulus and Jordan Russell were strong contributors last season, but the bulk of 2012's production returns. Nelson has hitters, defenders, middle blockers and a proven setter in Johnson.

"It's an interesting dynamic," said Nelson. "Our team is so fast right now. We are probably average height, but we can do a lot of things. We're super athletic. I think the game (we play) will be a lot of fun.

"You aren't going to see a lot of sets real high. It's going to be fast and furious. Offensively, we're much stronger than we've ever been."

Riddle obviously is the hitting star and UNM's go-to striker at the net. But defenses will hesitate to double team Riddle too much if House and Warren become front-line threats. Nelson says the biggest adjustment for first-year players is the speed and power of the game, but notes that House and Warren played club ball at a high level.

"I feel like our team is great. We have amazing hitters," said Riddle. "They hit the ball hard. We're going to be very aggressive. We're going to go after every ball. We're going to be tough. We're a diverse team. There are a lot of girls who can do different things."

Gullatt, Ross and Krieg give Nelson depth in the middle. Johnson really had a breakout year as a freshman with 646 assists and with Russell gone might see more time on the court which will only make her better. The other setter on the team is Norway's Rugland, who still has to adjust to Nelson's system.

The Colorado State Rams have been the bully on the Mountain West block in recent years, but Nelson's Lobos have the potential and the talent to hand him his first Mountain West crown. But the Lobos are not the only team capable of sitting on the Mountain West throne.

"The conference is as deep as it's ever been," said Nelson. "We have six teams (out of 10) who could win the conference. It's going to be a little bit different."

A different ending for UNM in 2013 would be a trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Lobos' last trip was in 2010 and an NCAA berth always is a program goal.

"Lexi (Ross) and I are the only people on this team who have gone to the NCAA Tournament," said Lovato. "We're going to really push this team and let them know how important it is to go to the NCAA Tournament."


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