If New Mexico has taken anything away from non-conference play, it’s that the Mountain West title is wide open and up for grabs.
Everyone begins conference play with the same 0-0 record, but there have been some changes on how the Mountain West is stacking up this year.
For starters, powerhouse Colorado State (6-5) has already lost more games than the squad lost all last season when the Rams were 26-4 and 18-0 in MW play.
This year, UNLV appears to be the team to beat, going 11-1 in anticipation for its conference season.
“I think this is the most balanced it’s ever been,” head coach Jeff Nelson said. “I think everyone’s got a shot.”
The Lobos’ dream of hoisting the Mountain West title is still a ways away, but it will all begin on Thursday night against Air Force in Johnson Center.
“Air Force is heading into conference with one of their best opening records,” Nelson said. “There’s not much separation right now.”
UNM (9-4) is currently tied with Air Force and Boise State for fourth place in the early season standings. The Lobos were picked to finish fourth overall in the preseason while Air Force was slated for dead last in the Mountain West.
The Mountain West is traditionally a conference where anything less than a divisional crown can pretty much guarantee a place on the couch in the postseason. However, that doesn’t mean that pre-conference play should be null and void.
New Mexico was able to get some quality looks this season against some top-tiered opponents, including No. 1 Nebraska.
The current records don’t matter much, but it does suggest the possibility of CSU not being at least a shareholder of the conference title, a feat they have managed the past six years.
For Nelson, he said he would like to see leadership from his four outside hitting seniors continue, and to watch the group grow through the MW portion of the schedule.
Starters Cassie House and Devanne Sours have already shown glimpses that they are on top of their game, having tied their career highs in kills this season. Julia Warren has proven yet again to be the reliable tranquil piece of the puzzle through her consistent play.
What must still be proved is whether or not the deep group of women can stay healthy for the entire year, and provide a shot at the ultimate goal.
While Nelson said he likes his chances this year, particularly with the depth he has from his bench, the head coach said no team in the conference is built to last with a major blow to a key player.
The Lobos are relatively healthy despite losing freshman J’Kaylee Clark on Sept. 9 to a leg injury. While a major loss, the Lobos have had the depth to mask the middle blocker’s absence, but Nelson said he can’t afford to lose anyone else.
A bright spot from UNM’s bench has come from budding star Lauren Twitty. The freshman outside hitter has already posted 41 kills in just 19 sets played in her first year.
Nelson said he anticipates a bigger role for the freshman during conference play, and expects Twitty’s solid play to heighten with more experience.
First serve against Air Force is scheduled for 7 p.m. MT on Thursday.
Liam Cary-Eaves is the sports editor for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers volleyball, women’s basketball and baseball. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Liam_CE.