The UNM Women's volleyball team is set to jump into the 2001 season when it plays host to the Comcast Lobo Invitational Tournament this weekend at Johnson Arena.
This year the tournament field will feature old Western Athletic Conference rival University of Texas at El Paso. It also includes last year's Missouri Valley Conference champion, the University of Northern Iowa, and McNesse State University, out of the Southland Conference, in a round-robin format.
The Lobos will introduce a new coaching staff under first year head coach Tom Peterson and seven new players, including two transfers and five freshman tonight against UTEP.
The game also will mark the return of junior middle blocker/outside hitter Vanessa Shields.
In 1999, Shields established herself as a threat in the middle, scoring career-highs in every statistical category. Shields' 2000 campaign was abruptly halted when, in her fourth match of the year against Stanford University, she suffered a season-ending knee injury.
"I hated watching them play on the court through bad times," Shields said. " I'm just glad I worked hard in rehab, and it's time to go out and show what I have."
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The Lobos finished a disappointing 10-17 overall and a 5-9 mark in the Mountain West Conference last season.
With only five returning players from last year's team, one of the biggest concerns is the team chemistry.
"We're going to learn a lot from this tournament," Peterson said. "We're playing hard in practice, getting better and better."
The Lobos return juniors Kelly Griffin and Blaire Burns. Griffin earned 1,003 assists last season, averaging 10.45 per game, which was good enough for sixth place in the conference. Burns was primarily a defensive specialist coming off the bench. She finished with 176 digs, averaging 1.87 per game.
UTEP comes in coached by Revis Ward Daggett, who led the Miners to a 16-15 record and 7-9 in WAC play last season.
Ward Daggett helped engineer a six-match winning streak last season, which catapulted the Miners from ninth to fourth place in a matter of 21 days, earning her WAC Co-Coach of the Year.
The morning session on Saturday pits the Lobos against McNeese State, which is in a rebuilding year under head coach Lee McBride.
McNeese State lost five seniors from last year's squad, including all-Southland Conference player Anissa Parker.
The team finished last year with a 15-15 overall record and sixth in the conference with an 11-9 mark.
The Cowgirls return experienced junior setter, Beth Chapman, who was ranked among the top players in assists in the Southland Conference with 875.
The evening session will be a true test for the Lobos against the Northern Iowa Panthers.
The Panthers finished last season ranked No. 24 in the nation with a 29-5 record and a perfect 18-0 in conference play.
The Panthers find themselves ranked No. 32 in this year's preseason poll.
The 2001 version of the Panthers volleyball team plans to continue its winning ways with head coach Bobbi Petersen and Northern Iowa's only senior, outside hitter Kim McCaffrey.
McCaffrey is a preseason all-Missouri Valley Conference pick after earning first team all-league honors during the past two seasons.
Despite the Lobos' inexperience and Northern Iowa's national ranking, most UNM players are not intimidated by the Panthers.
"They look pretty good," Burns said. "Then again, they're not in the best conference in the world."