Aggies Volleyball Season Recap

By: Joseph Fullbright

NM State 3     UTEP 2

The New Mexico State women’s volleyball team officially closed out the 2016 season with a 3-2 victory over UTEP [25-20, 18-25, 23-25, 26-24, 15-12] in the Battle of I-10 at Memorial Gym in El Paso.

The Aggies jumped out early taking set one before struggling mightily in the second. The second set saw NMSU hit a rough -.024 and commit 11 attack errors. UTEP would go on to take the third set as well and was looking to close out the match.

Facing a 2-1 deficit, the Aggies knew they had to step it up if they wanted to end the season on a high note. They won the fourth set thanks to successful offensive attacking, which forced the decisive fifth set. The two teams were tied at 12 before the Aggies ended the match on a 3-point scoring streak to secure the 15-12 victory.

“Glad we were able to come back from down 2-1 and overcome all of our attack errors,” Aggie head coach Mike Jordan said. “Fortunately our block came alive and score for us in the fifth set.”

With the victory, the Aggies improved to and will finish the season with a 24-7 record, including a 13-1 mark in WAC play. It is the 14th time in 19 seasons that a Jordan-coached team finished with 20 or more wins in a season.

Aggies Take Home Plenty of Accolades

Following the regular season, the Western Athletic Conference honored the season’s top performers with accolades and honors.

Aggie outside-hitters Jordan Abalos and Tatyana Battle were named to the All-WAC First Team thanks to stellar seasons. Abalos, a junior, led the team with 426 kills on the year (3.70 per set) and finished with 17 double-doubles. Battle really made a name for herself in only her sophomore year finishing second on the team with 389 kills, including a season-high 28 at UTRGV back on November 5.

The Aggies were also represented well on the All-WAC Second Team with outside-hitter Sasha-Lee Thomas and libero Ariadnne Sierra taking home the honors. Thomas, who was selected as the WAC Preseason Player of the Year prior to the year, had a very solid junior campaign leading the Aggies with 92 blocks on the defensive end while finishing 3rd with 316 kills. Sierra finished the season with 548 digs (4.68 per set). She recorded double-digit digs in 27 of the team’s 31 season games.

In addition to being named to the All-WAC Second Team, Sierra was also named the WAC Libero of the Year.

Rounding out the accolades for the Aggies was setter Crash Parker, who was named to the All-WAC Freshman Team. She finished her freshman season with 548 assists- good for second on the team.

Looking Ahead to 2017

It was not the ending to the season that Mike Jordan and his volleyball team were looking for. After jumping out to a dominant 20-5 start, they began to struggle down the stretch dropping two of their final six matches. They barely squeaked by with three of those four victories coming by way of fifth set battles.

The rough late-season stretch was capped with a defeat to UT-Rio Grande Valley in the WAC Tournament Semifinals by way of a 3-1 score. The Aggies entered the tournament as the #1 seed and, thanks to it being hosted in Las Cruces, were the heavy favorites to win it and clinch an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

Sure the 2016 season may leave a sour taste in coach Jordan and the team’s mouths, but there is a lot to look forward to as far as 2017 is concerned.

Let’s start off with the obvious: head coach Mike Jordan will be back for his 20th season at the helm of the team. His 421 career victories speak for themselves when looking at his success here in Las Cruces. He has also won at least 20 games in 14 of his 19 seasons. Jordan will also hopefully retain assistant coaches Keith Rubio and Ben Wallis- two guys who are very underrated as far as the teams’ success is concerned. We know that the coaches will most likely be there, so what about the roster?

This 2016 Aggie team really overachieved on the court this season. They came into the year coming off of one of the best seasons in program history (28-6) in 2015 and had to face the challenge of replacing five very important lost seniors. It was supposed to be a rebuilding year, yet coach Jordan got his players to exceed all expectations and finish the year with great success.

The best thing to look forward to? There were ZERO seniors on the roster in 2016. Barring any transfers, the Aggies will return almost everybody in 2017. Offensive attackers Jordan Abalos, Sasha-Lee Thomas, and Kassandra Tohm, along with WAC Libero of the Year Ariadnne Sierra will be seniors. Tatyana Battle and Brianna Ainsworth, who were both huge this past season and were starters, will also just be juniors. Crash Parker, Megan Hart, and Brigette Lowe will be among those who will be sophomores. Next year’s team could very well go down as one of the most talented rosters that Las Cruces has ever seen on the court.

The future is definitely bright for the New Mexico State volleyball team.

Aggie Volleyball: Week in Review (10/23-10/29)

By: Joseph Fullbright

NM State 3, Grand Canyon 0 

For the 12th time in his career, head coach Mike Jordan has reached the 20-win milestone in a season. The Aggies improved to 20-5 and 10-0 in the WAC with a sweep of Grand Canyon [25-23, 25-18, 25-11] last week.

The first set was a close one that saw 15 ties and eight lead changes between the two teams. The Aggies seemed like they were going to pull away, before the Lopes (4-17, 0-9 WAC) tied it up at 22. The rally did not last as NMSU won 25-23.

The Aggies came out in the second set and showed why they were the most talented team in the WAC and why Grand Canyon was in the bottom portion. NMSU was up big 15-4 and never looked back as they would close it out to win 25-18.

Coming out of halftime, NMSU picked up right where they left off. They opened set three on an 8-3 run that would eventually become 21-8. They would secure their 20th win of the season with a 25-11 set victory.

Sasha-Lee Thomas led the Aggies with 14 kills and two blocks and Jordan Abalos accounted for 12 kills, seven digs, and three blocks.

“This was a solid win,” said Jordan. “I think our athletic ability helped a lot; we are a more athletic team. If you get teams out of system and are more athletic, you will beat them most of the time. We were able to do that, and I’m really proud of how efficient we were in sets two and three.”

Bakersfield 3, NM State 1 

With an opportunity to clinch the WAC regular season title, the Aggies fell to CSU-Bakersfield 3-1 [25-14, 18-25, 18-25, 19-25] in their home finale. The loss snapped a 24-game winning streak for NMSU versus WAC opponents dating back to 2014.

New Mexico State (20-6, 10-1 WAC) was clicking on all cylinders in the first set, as they dominated the Runners 25-14. The Aggies closed the set out on a 12-1 scoring run after the two teams were tied at 13. The Aggies hit an outstanding .310 while Bakersfield hit .065.

The first set was it for the Aggies, as they were outmatched and made a lot of mistakes the rest of the day. In set two, the Runners opened on a 4-2 run and did not look back, eventually winning 25-18. NMSU did not help their own cause, hitting a dismal -.086 percent and committed 13 attack errors.

Coming out of the halftime break, Bakersfield kept their feet on the gas and jumped out to a 15-9 lead, thanks to their .344 hitting percentage. The Aggies continued to struggle, hitting only .048. The Runners took the set 25-18.

The fourth set saw the Aggies regain a little bit of their spark, as they fell behind early but managed to tie the set at 12-12. However, too many mistakes and poor offensive execution allowed the Runners to win the set 25-19 and take the match from the first-place Aggies.

Tatyana Battle was the most impressive Aggie in the match, as she led the team with 11 kills and added 12 digs- good enough for her sixth double-double of the season. Jordan Abalos added nine kills and 12 digs in the loss.

“Honestly, we deserved that,” said junior outside-hitter Kassandra Tohm. “The way we played out there and the attitude we came out there with, we deserved that. I think that shows we can’t just cruise through teams like we did in the first set. We can’t relax, we can’t just sit down and be like ‘OK, we got this. We’re the number one dog.’ No, we’re not OK. We have a target on our back every single game and every single team wants to beat us.”

The Aggies will close out the WAC regular season this week on the road as they visit Chicago State on Thursday, November 10, and then on Saturday, November 12, when they play UMKC.

Aggies Defeat UMKC in Five-Set Thriller, Stay Unbeaten in WAC Play

By: Joseph Fullbright

The New Mexico State Aggies volleyball team won its 10th consecutive match last Thursday by defeating UMKC in a five-set thriller [23-25, 24-26, 25-17, 27-25, 15-12]. The Aggies found themselves down two sets to none, but railed together to win the next three and improved to 16-4 (6-0 in WAC play) on the year.

The ‘Roos (10-9, 3-3) were the more aggressive team right off the bat as they jumped out to a commanding 13-6 lead. NMSU called a timeout trying to regain their rhythm, but poor offensive execution put them in a 24-17 hole. With their backs against the wall, the Aggies rallied off six straight points to make it 24-23, but would go on to fall 25-23. This was the first time the Aggies lost a set since September 24 vs. Utah Valley.

The second set was more of a back-and-forth affair. NMSU jumped out to a 9-5 lead, but that was the farthest they were able to separate from UMKC. The two teams traded points all the way from a 21-21 tie to 24-24. The ‘Roos put the Aggies away and took set two 26-24.

“We were getting what we wanted, [but] our setting and attack choices really need to improve,” said coach Jordan. “But, when we are cooking on all cylinders, we are hard to beat. We have 18 more kills, but ten more attack errors. We have really got to learn to stop doing that.”

Knowing they couldn’t afford to lose another set in the match, the Aggies locked in during the third set. After hitting .169 between the two first sets, NMSU hit a very impressive .314 as a team. Their improved hitting and cutting back on errors helped them take the set 25-17.

Set four was one of the most intense sets the Aggies have been involved in this season. UMKC looked to be in control with a 20-16 lead and NMSU reeling to stop the opposing attack, but the Aggies showed why they were the conference favorites by rallying to tie it at 21. After trading a few points, they found themselves in a set-point situation, up 24-22. It wouldn’t be that easy, as the ‘Roos rallied to tie the set at 24. The Aggies would go on to win the nail-biter, 27-25, despite both teams combining for 20 errors and each hitting below .100 in the set.

In a deciding fifth set, the ‘Roos jumped out to a 6-2 start. That would be it for them, as the Aggies went on a dominating 12-1 run to take a commanding 14-7 lead. They would close out the set and win the match 15-12.

“We talk about being persistent, we talk about it everyday, because of our youth and lack of skill in some spots. We have to be persistent in the way we compete and I thought we did a good job with that,” said Jordan, discussing the team’s rally.

Sophomore Tatyana Battle has really stepped up this season for the Aggies, and tonight really showed that. She finished with a career-high 19 kills and 16 digs.

“She [Battle] couldn’t play in six rotations last year, she didn’t have the ball control, and now she is really improved and has done a good job,” said Jordan. “She has really improved and we expect her to keep getting better and better.”

Jordan Abalos tallied her 11th double-double of the season with 21 kills and 15 digs, Kassandra Tohm had 11 kills, and Brianna Ainsworth added a career-high 57 assists.

“We have to play in this 5-1 [formation]. We are not built for it, the injures [to Crash Parker, in particular] forced us in to that. I would love to be able to rest some people and help us get through the weekend.”

New Mexico State followed their victory over UMKC with a 3-0 sweep of Chicago State on Saturday. The next day, they traveled up I-25 and fell to rival New Mexico 3-1. Their record after the busy weekend is now 17-5 and 7-0 in WAC play.

The Aggies will have a key week ahead as they return home for a quick two-game homestand. They face Grand Canyon on Thursday at 7:00 and Cal State-Bakersfield on Saturday at 1:00.

Saturday, 10/15

NM State 3 Jordan Abalos: 13 kills, 10 digs

Chicago State 0 Tatyana Battle: 12 kills, 11 digs

[25-19, 25-19, 25-20] Sasha-Lee Thomas: 9 kills, 3 blocks

Sunday, 10/16

New Mexico 3 Sasha-Lee Thomas: 15 kills, 7 blocks

NM State 1 Jordan Abalos: 14 kills

[25-20, 26-28, 17-25, 23-25] Brianna Ainsworth: 30 assists

Jordan Abalos helping keep NMSU volleyball as the class of the WAC

By: Joseph Fullbright

Mike Jordan has seen his fair share of talent come and go throughout his 19 seasons as head coach of the New Mexico State volleyball team.

With the loss of five valuable seniors last year, the Aggies knew some younger players would have to step up and produce if they wished to win the WAC once again.

One of those players has been junior Jordan Abalos.

Abalos, a 5’10” outside-hitter from Safford, Arizona, has great motivation to be the best in everything she does.

“I have always been [very motivated]. My dad always told me to ‘never be satisfied in what I do.’ So, no matter what awards [I receive], I always know there’s room for improvement.”

Volleyball hasn’t been the only sport Abalos has excelled at in her life. A three-sport All-American at Safford High School, she also starred on the basketball and track teams. She averaged 20.8 points and 13.8 rebounds per game on the hardwood. In track and field, she competed at the national level in high jump and javelin throw.

“The most I was recruited for was track and I had offers from a few Division I schools,” said Abalos, whose national level exposure showed colleges her skill. “But, my heart was at volleyball, so I wanted to play that.”

Back in early August, Abalos was voted to the preseason All-WAC first team by the conference coaches.

“It caught me by surprise. I honestly had no idea and I think they [the coaches] see the potential I can possibly reach and will reach eventually.”

The ride to the top hasn’t been entirely easy for Abalos, who has learned a lot from the last two seasons in Las Cruces. She was great on the offensive side of the net during her freshman season, totaling 180 kills to go along with five double-doubles.

“[During] my freshman year, all I did was hit. Now, I see myself thinking ‘where or how’ I want to place things in different situations. Whether you’re in a system or out of a system, there’s different ways to approach your hitting and I had no idea until I got here.”

Her sophomore season may go down as the most important in the long run. Abalos suited up at both her natural position, outside-hitter, and as a defensive specialist: a libero. That resulted in a drop-off of offensive numbers, but the experience proved to be very important.

“I was not very good at defense when I first came in here, but last year [2015] I kind of got to perfect that as a libero.”

With her natural explosiveness as an offensive player, paired with the defensive finesse acquired from her experience at libero, Abalos has become a complete player so far in 2016.

Through 19 games, she leads the Aggies with 247 kills (second in the WAC) and 21 service aces.

Thanks to her improvement on defense, she is second on the team with 195 digs- a key defensive stat. Her ten double-doubles (double-digit totals in kills and digs) show her transition from a one-sided player to an all-around threat who can produce on both sides of the net.

Prior to the season, Mike Jordan praised her as somebody who he thinks would step up big for the Aggies. With those expectations, criticism and harshness is expected.

“He’s another dad to me because my dad was the same way when I was in high school. I think coach Jordan saw and noticed that. When he recruited me, that’s what he talked about: ‘she can take a lot of criticism and pressure.’ Other people have brought

that up- him getting on to me, and I think it’s just because he knows I can take it and respond in a way that he wants me to.”

The ultimate goal for Abalos, like many of her Aggie teammates, is to make the NCAA Tournament and win a game or two.

“It’s going to be tough, because we have a target on our backs. We won last year and are favored again this year. It’s going to be hard, but if we just continue to grow and get better at things we aren’t good at, there’s no stopping us.”

Joseph Fullbright can be at: trunews@nmsu.edu. Twitter: @trusports_

Aggies Beat Seattle in WAC Opener

By: Joseph Fullbright

The non-conference slate is over for the New Mexico State women’s volleyball team as they opened up Western Athletic Conference play last Thursday with a thrilling five set victory over Seattle [25-16, 25-15, 23-25, 21-25, 15-13].

The first two sets were pretty identical for NMSU, who used big runs to secure the victories. In set one, they used a 12-3 run to win 25-16. In set two, they jumped out to a 17-12 lead before going on another run to win 25-15. Both were dominating set wins and the Aggies looked like they were going to cruise to their fifth straight victory.

Then Seattle, who was selected third in the preseason WAC poll and coming off one their best seasons in a decade, made their comeback. The Aggies were up 23-20 in set three and the feeling around the Pan American Center was that the match was over and the Aggies won. Due to a strong offensive attack and poor NMSU defense, the Redhawks reeled off five straight points to win the set 25-23.

The effects of the tough, tiring third match seemed to carry over to the fourth for the Aggies, who seemed out of their groove and were allowing the Redhawks to keep up with them. The fourth set saw 13 ties and six lead changes. Seattle would prevail 25-21 and the two teams would be heading to a decisive fifth set.

“In the first couple of sets, we blocked well and got in their heads a little bit. I really expected this to be a close match. Then the 10-minute break happened, and it changes the momentum sometimes,” said head coach Mike Jordan. “Their service pressure improved and started serving it tougher. They started taking better swings. It looked like the match had flipped.”

At the start of the fifth set, Seattle picked up right where they left off, jumping out to a 5-2 lead with all momentum on their side. An Aggie rally gave them the lead at 11-10 heading into the final stretch. That lead would stay, as they held on for a 15-13 victory to win the match.

For the Aggies (10-4), it was their 17th consecutive victory in WAC play dating back to last season. Jordan Abalos continued her stellar play with a team-high 21 kills to go along with 7 digs. Tatyana Battle (16) and Sasha-Lee Thomas (13) each finished with double-digit kills as well. Brianna Ainsworth added a double-double with 33 assists and 13 digs.

lee-thomas-and-abalos-nm-state-sports

The win was definitely tougher for the Aggies than it needed to be, but in the end, they got the win and that’s the most important thing.

“We went from looking the best we have this year, to looking like we did the first week of the season in the third and fourth sets,” added Jordan. “We started getting in our own heads, trying to hang on and hope they would make mistakes, instead of making plays. I tried to fire them up and I don’t know if it worked or not, but we are happy to get a win.”

Quick Stats vs. Seattle U (9/22/16)

Aggies Sweep Brown Invitational Before Start of WAC Play

By: Joseph Fullbright

NM State def. Central Connecticut State 3-0

After a very tough home stand that pitted them against three very solid opponents, the Aggies had to travel 2,334 miles this past weekend to Providence, Rhode Island for the Brown Invitational Tournament. NMSU won its opening match on Friday vs. Central Connecticut State in straight sets [25-20, 25-21, 25-21].

Jordan Abalos led the way with a career-high 22 kills. She also recorded her eighth double-double of the season with an addition of 13 digs in the match. Kassandra Tohm also added nine kills of her own. The three sets were all very contested as the Aggies used late pushes in each to secure the victories.

NM State def. Binghamton 3-1

In what would prove to me the toughest of the three matches over the weekend, NMSU defeated Binghamton 3-1 [23-25, 27-25, 26-24, 25-21] on Saturday morning.

“We got pushed today,” said head coach Mike Jordan. “They were pretty good at exposing some of our weaknesses, and it took us too long to adjust.”

The Aggies saw their big 11-2 lead evaporate quickly as Binghampton stormed back to tie the set at 20 before eventually winning their lone one of the match. The Bearcats were one point away from taking set two as they held a 24-22 lead before the Aggies rallied and ended up winning 27-25. The set itself featured 16 ties.

The third set was just like the first two-very tight and competitive. “We played well at the end of sets and managed to score points, which is a big point of emphasis for us,” said Jordan. The fourth was an easier one as the Aggies ‘cruised’- compared to the other sets, winning 25-21 for the match win. Jordan Abalos continued her stellar play with 21 kills and 17 digs. Tatyana Battle joined her in double figure kills with 14.

NM State def. Brown 3-0

In the final match of the weekend, the Aggies swept host Brown 3-0 [25-15, 25-15, 25-9]. Thanks to an undefeated weekend, they were named the Brown Invitational Champions. Brown did not put up as strong of a fight as Binghamton and that allowed NMSU to coast to a victory.

“[We] gave ourselves some easy chances and converted. I liked our floor defense,” Jordan added. “Most of all, I liked how efficient we were. It was definitely our best match of the weekend.”

Jordan Abalos capped off a stellar weekend with 13 kills in the match en route to being named Tournament MVP. She finished with a total of 55 kills, 38 digs, and two blocks. Brianna Ainsworth was also selected to the All-Tournament team finishing with 72 assists and 26 digs. The Aggies improved to 9-4 on the season as they are now beginning conference play.

abalosAbalos Named WAC Player of the Week

Thanks to an outstanding week at the Brown Invitational, junior outside hitter Jordan Abalos was named the WAC Player of the Week for the week of September 12 – September 18. It was the first time she has received the award in her career. This past weekend at the Brown Invitational tournament, Abalos totaled 56 kills (5.6 per set), 38 digs (3.8 per set), and hit an outstanding .431 hitting percentage. Abalos recorded a career-high 22 kills with 13 digs in the first match vs. Central Connecticut.

In a very competitive second match vs. Binghamton, she put up 20 kills with 17 digs- good for her ninth double-double of the year. To close out the weekend, she managed 13 kills against host Brown. Named a preseason First Team All-WAC selection, Abalos is seriously making a case for WAC Player of the Year: something to keep an eye on.

Aggies go 1-2 in Tough Borderland Invitational

By: Joseph Fullbright

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NM State 3, Sacramento State 2

The initial thought heading into the Borderland Invitational was that the Aggies would have to face two of the most talented teams in the nation after what would be an easy tune-up game in their opener. It turned out to be the opposite as the opening game vs. Sacramento State would prove to be the toughest match of the weekend for host New Mexico State.

The Aggies improved to 6-2 on the season after a brutal five set nail-biting match in which they won in a [25-22, 16-25, 27-25, 24-26, 16-14] decision. The first set was close with both teams trading leads early before the Aggies eventually would pull away with. The Hornets, who fell to 3-4 on the season, completely dominated the second set as they jumped out to a 20-10 lead, which was more than enough of a cushion to hold on. It looked like Sacramento State was going to win the third set too, as they held an 18-12 lead.

The Aggies locked in, thanks to great defensive play, to tie the set at 24 before winning the set. The same happened in the fourth set: the Hornets jumped out to an early lead and the Aggies rallied. This time, the rally fell a little short and the match was tied heading into the decisive fifth set.

The set followed que of the rest of the match and the teams found themselves at a 14-14 tie. The Aggies would get the final two points to secure the victory- a very tough one. Sasha-Lee Thomas led NMSU with 17 kills while Jordan Abalos (14 kills, 17 digs) and Tatyana Battle (11 kills, 13 digs) added double-doubles to the winning effort.

#16 Texas A&M 3, NM State 0

The second game of the night would carry with it a tougher (at least on paper) opponent in nationally ranked #16 Texas A&M. NMSU was swept in straight sets by the other Aggies  [20-25, 16-25, 19-25], in front of a sizeable attendance of 1,525 fans. “[I] really liked the crowd, they gave us an energy boost,” head coach Mike Jordan said. After jumping out to a 6-1 lead to begin the first set, NMSU was unable to capitalize and hold onto its lead.

Texas A&M would rally in the middle of the set, thanks to its powerful offensive attack. Jordan attributed some of the mistakes his team made to having the previous game earlier the day. “It’s tough, we got a bit winded, but that’s never an excuse.” A constant theme that was evident throughout the match was NMSU’s ability to jump out to early leads, yet give them up through their play.

In all three sets, NMSU had at least a 3-point lead. “A bit frustrating that we played the way we did after we jumped out to those leads,” Jordan added. Three Aggies finished with seven kills in the match while Brianna Ainsworth had a team-high 18 assists.

Arizona 3, NM State 1

In the final match of the Borderland Invitational, the New Mexico State volleyball team faced another fellow tough opponent in Arizona. The Aggies (6-4) fell to the Wildcats in four sets [21-25, 25-19, 16-25, 20-25]. “The first set got away from us, we had 17 kills to their 13 and we made a couple errors late in the set that cost us,” said head coach Mike Jordan.

The Aggies came out focused and had a much improved second set. “We looked great in the second set, probably as good as we have looked all year,” he mentioned. The Aggies hit .312 in the set, easily the highest of any set for them in the match. Set three was one to forget as Arizona used their early hot start to cruise to a 25-16 victory. Looking to close the game out, the Wildcats (5-5) jumped out early to a 10-5 lead. Mike Jordan was not happy with the way things were looking at that point. ”Our leaders need to [get us rallying],” he said.

“We are consistently inconsistent.” Jordan got onto his players in the middle of the set and the Aggies rallied. The rally came a little too late, as they fell 25-20. Jordan Abalos led the Aggies’ attack with 19 kills and 13 digs- her sixth double-double of the season. Kassandra Tohm was also impressive in the match, compiling 13 kills with a team-high .407 hitting percentage.

The weekend sure was a tough one for the Aggies, but they definitely improved and learned some things. “Great teams expose your weaknesses, it’s non-conference season [right now].” The Aggies are coming home from the Brown Invitational in Rhode Island that took place last weekend and will open up conference play this week vs. Seattle and Utah Valley.

Sasha-Lee Thomas: An in-depth look at the WAC Pre-season Player of the Year

By JOSEPH FULLBRIGHT

The Western Athletic Conference volleyball media day typically carries a significant amount of weight for the sports’ season. Here, the coaches of the respective conferences teams come together to cast their votes for individual accolades and what they believe the standings will look like.

It was a big day for New Mexico State, as they were not just the overwhelming favorite to win the WAC, but had one of their own selected as the WAC Preseason Player of the Year in Sasha-Lee Thomas.

Thomas, entering her junior season, is coming off of a solid campaign in which she compiled 204 kills to go along with a team-high 114 blocks.

The award has great meaning to her, but she says she is focused on the upcoming season, “It’s good, but now I actually have to go out there and get the [regular] season [WAC] player of the year” she said.

The pressure to perform will certainly be there, as Thomas looks to anchor a squad looking to replace a five valuable seniors who graduated last year.

“It’s going to be really hard because those were the people that we depended on” she said, “Now that they’re gone, it’s hard to figure out who’s going to be that person to step in their shoes.”

Thomas is surely one of the players that will be counted on to be one of the team’s best players, but she is not worried about the pressure.

“I know that for my team, I just have to go out and play big every game. I’m not really focused on being the preseason player [of the year]. I’m just focusing on getting my team wins” she said.

The Kingston, Jamaica native finished last season with 204 kills, good for fourth on the team, and 114 blocks, which led the squad. She takes great pride in being a dominant force on both sides of the net.

“On the defensive side, it’s more special when you get a block” she said, “It’s a better feeling than getting a kill. I would rather be first on the team in blocks than kills.”

Last season’s performance earned her a Second Team All-WAC selection.

Following her freshman season in 2014, Thomas was named to the All- WAC Freshman team thanks to her 145 kills and 93 blocks before suffering a season-ending injury causing her to miss the final four regular season games in addition to the WAC Tournament. This was after she medically redshirted the entire 2013 season following an injury.

Health is an important issue for Thomas, who credits her resistance to injury as key to her improvement in performance over the years.

“My key to keep on improving is just to stay healthy, because every year, it seems like I’m kept off the court by some kind of injury, so my key is just to stay healthy for my team.” She played in all 36 of the Aggies’ games last season, something she was not able to do in any other year in her career.

Thomas, a Kinesiology major, plans to pursue to play professional volleyball overseas before she begins a career in her field of study.

Despite having to replace the five seniors and having the pressure that comes with being the WAC Preseason Player of the Year, her expectations remain very high for the Aggies: “My expectation is to win the big games like [vs.] Arizona, Texas A&M and other

the big games like [vs.] Arizona, Texas A&M and other non-conference games. Then, to win the WAC and actually try to get to the second round of the NCAA [tournament] this year” she said.

Volleyball Preview

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.”