By JOSEPH FULLBRIGHT
Winning and high expectations are nothing new for head coach Mike Jordan and the New Mexico State women’s volleyball team. The Aggies were picked by fellow WAC coaches to win the Conference Championship once again this season. The defending WAC regular season and Tournament Champions received six of the eight first place votes in the preseason coaches’ poll. The first place projection is coming off of a season in which the Aggies went 28-6 en route to an NCAA Tournament appearance, where they fell in the first round to nationally ranked #8 Stanford in straight sets [25-20, 25-13, 25-17].
In addition to being tabbed as the favorites to win the conference, the Aggies placed the most players on the preseason All-WAC team with four. Junior middle hitter Sasha-Lee Thomas was chosen as the WAC Preseason Player of the Year. The 6’2” Kingston, Jamaica native earned second team All-WAC honors last season after posting 204 kills and 97 assists. To go along with her productive offense, Thomas also led the team with 114 blocks. Prior to her breakout season last year, she was named to the WAC All-Freshman team back in 2014. Thomas received high praise from coach Jordan, even being compared to All-American Gwen Murphy. “Athletically, both of their athleticism is off the charts, and they can do a lot of things.”
Fellow junior teammate Jordan Abalos was also named to the preseason All- WAC team. Last season, the outside hitter recorded 109 kills, including 25 service aces. As a freshman out of Safford, Arizona, in 2014, she was also named to the WAC All-Freshman team after racking up 180 kills. She immediately made a name for herself in Las Cruces after marking 12 kills and 16 digs in her very first game. Abalos was mentioned by coach Jordan as one of the players who has grown the most in the offseason: “[She] has better range as an attacker than she did before. She is an elite receiver and attacker.”
Joining Thomas and Abalos on the preseason All-WAC team are sophomores Brianna Ainsworth and Tatyana Battle. Both are New Mexico natives and were selected to the WAC All-Freshman team last season. Ainsworth, a setter out of V. Sue Cleveland High School in Rio Rancho, will look to repeat the success she had last season as she posted 639 assists, which was good for second on the team behind then-senior Taylor Livoti. As a Cibola High School graduate, Battle will also look to get out of the shadows of last season’s seniors, as she is the leading returner in kills after posting 253. That was good enough for fourth on the team for the outside hitter.
These four preseason All-WAC players will definitely have their work cut out for them as they look to fill the shoes left behind by some very talented players.
The biggest piece to replace will be former standout Gwen Murphy, who will be remembered as one of the best players in New Mexico State volleyball history. In particular, her 2015 senior campaign was a season for the ages. She led the team with 414 kills and a .421 hitting percentage- which was good enough for tenth in the nation. In addition, she would go on to become the NMSU career leader for most career matches (136) and sets (472) played. The fact that being awarded the 2015 WAC Player of the Year is one of her lesser achievements goes to show what a year it was. She was named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association
Honorable Mention All-American Team, becoming just the seventh Aggie ever to reach that feat. Murphy was also named to the Association’s Midwest All-Region team and was the recipient of the Western Athletic Conference Joe Kearney Award, which is awarded to the top male and female student-athletes of the year. Add on the 2015 WAC Tournament MVP award, her 2013 and 2015 First Team All-WAC honors, and 2014 Second Team All-WAC honor and you have a very decorated player whose collegiate career will be hard for the Aggies to replace.
Joining Murphy as valuable NMSU departures are Nathalie Castellanos, Bradley Nash, and Taylor Livoti. Castellanos was second on the team with 274 kills and was a two-time Second Team All-WAC performer (2014 & 2015). Nash, a two-sport athlete also playing for the women’s basketball team, just finished behind Castellanos with 272 kills. Setting the ball to Murphy, Castellanos, and Nash was Livoti, who led the team in assists the last two seasons totaling 638 (’14) and 745 (’15) respectively. This group of seniors amassed a record of 89-39, good for a .695 winning percentage, and appeared in three NCAA Tournaments during their time playing for the Crimson and White.
Replacing players is not something that worries Mike Jordan. “I think a lot of these players that are returning, while they may not statistically have great numbers in terms of production, they could have done that had we chosen to use them like that.” Jordan mentioned that 2003 and 2011 were both big instances where they lost great players and ended being successful anyway. “…They have to step their game up a little bit and take on more responsibility, but they are prepared.”
Standing in New Mexico State’s way of defending their WAC title are 2014 champion CSU-Bakersfield and Seattle, each of who received the other two votes and finished second and third, respectively, in the preseason coaches’ poll. Bakersfield returns senior outside hitter Carol Grasso and redshirt junior middle blocker Sydney Haynes, who were named to the preseason All-WAC team. Perhaps the opposing player to keep an eye on the most is UT-Rio Grande Valley junior right front attacker Bojana Mitrovic, who led the WAC in kills with 460- which is 46 more than Gwen Murphy’s totals. The Aggies begin WAC play this season on September 22 vs. Seattle.
This year’s schedule will prove to be a tough one for the Aggies. They opened the season with a tournament at UNLV in Las Vegas on August 26th-27th, where they went 1-2. They swept Albany in their season opener in straight sets [25-22, 25-12, 25-13] on Friday the 26th, thanks to big games from Tatyana Battle (12 kills) and Jordan Abalos (10 kills). That evening, they could not hold on to their set lead and fell to UC-Santa Barbara in five very competitive sets [30-28, 25-22, 23-25, 19-25, 13-15]. Sasha-Lee Thomas had a team-high 19 kills in the loss. The Aggies were swept by host UNLV [21-25, 17-25, 21-25] in the final match of the tournament. After this season opening tournament, the Aggies will take their 1-2 record to Alabama for the Troy Tournament, where they will play against Austin Peay, Valparaiso, Troy, and Southern. NMSU will return home this weekend and will be hosting the Borderland Invitational. The Invitational will be a very tough one for the Aggies. After they open up against Sacramento State Friday afternoon, they will have to face two fellow 2015 NCAA Tournament participants: Texas A&M and the University of Arizona. Rounding out non-conference play is the Brown University Tournament in Rhode Island, where the Aggies will play against Central Connecticut, Binghamton, and Brown. As mentioned earlier, the Aggies open WAC play on September 22nd in Las Cruces vs. Seattle. Sandwiched in between conference play are rivalry games vs. UNM and UTEP. The Aggies play the Lobos on October 16th in Albuquerque in the teams’ only meeting this season. UTEP comes to Las Cruces on October 5th. Then, like last two seasons, NMSU travels to El Paso for their game that takes place after the conclusion of the WAC Tournament.
For the first time since 2007, New Mexico State will be the host school of the WAC Volleyball Tournament. The tournament will take place November 17th through the 20th. “We are excited to be hosting the WAC Tournament,” said head coach Mike Jordan. “… It is finally our turn to host. Hopefully we can draw well and put our young team in a position to perform.”
The Aggies are primed for another successful season. There will be pressure for the younger players to step up into star roles, but coach Jordan has no doubts about them. “…It’s on their shoulders to step up and make those plays late in games. I’m sure they are more than capable. They are a great group of athletes and work very hard.”