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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Volleyball team comes with fresh faces and international experience

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By Sergio Jiménez / New Mexico Daily Lobo

New Mexico volleyball setter Hannah Johnson runs drills with her teammates at Johnson Gym on Aug. 11. The volleyball team was recently recognized in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Division I Preseason Poll with nine points placing them among the Top 40 teams.

Young teams are often threatened with having to endure a learning curve.

However, the University of New Mexico volleyball team is confident that the unit will be good to go as soon as the season starts.

“This team has been a long time in the making. We’re excited about it,” head coach Jeff Nelson said. “We’re poised to make a good run for a while … We’re ready to make a run at the conference championship.”

All-American Chantale Riddle is the only returning senior on a roster that features seven newcomers, including six freshmen. Riddle said she needs to take on a bigger role to help the young squad.

“I know that I need to push a little harder,” Riddle said. “I need to work harder than any other player in the conference to help my team get to that next level.”

Outside hitters Julia Warren and Cassie House traveled abroad to Europe to play on the Mountain West All-Star team. Warren and House were able to experience rigorous play before lacing up in their sophomore year.

Warren, House and outside hitter Devanne Sours will be sharing a portion of the playing time after all three players saw significant time on the court in each of their freshman campaigns.

“We’ve got our healthiest outside group we’ve had in a long time,” Nelson said. “The three of them should get a lot of playing time.”

Warren said she is not worried at all about the youth of the team. In fact, the young talent brings out a great deal of excitement.

“We have a returner competing with a freshman for a spot,” she said. “It raises the level in the gym every time we step on the court.”

Redshirt junior setter Hannah Johnson also took an international trip to gain some experience on the BIP USA Volleyball Team. The individuals fortunate enough to gain experience overseas have propelled the intensity of play, she said.

“We put pressure on ourselves just knowing how much talent that we have,” Johnson said. “We’ve all kind of linked in and believe that we can do this as well and make this one of the best seasons ever.”

Nelson also is feeling the intensity in the gym. He said he doesn’t have to refocus his team too often because of the competitive nature that his team has orchestrated.

Nelson is throwing his group significant tests early in the season because he doesn’t think that growing pains are going to play a factor.

“Our schedule affords us to have a lot of quality matches that would provide quality wins at the postseason time,” he said.

UNM came up just short of entering postseason play last year, despite a 24-7 record that awarded the team with a second place finish in the conference.

However, due to the lack of attention the Mountain West gets in volleyball, the Lobos watched their RPI diminish, even after sweeping teams in the conference.

By playing a difficult schedule early in the year, Nelson is hoping to overcome some of the controversy that prevented UNM from competing in the postseason last year.

“We literally have loaded the first four weeks. There is a big match in all of the first four weekends,” Nelson said. “I like our experience and what we have going in to it … This has the potential to be maybe the greatest season in a long, long time here.”

Liam Cary-Eaves is a sports reporter for the Daily Lobo. Contact him at sports@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @Liam_CE.