Photo by Michael Wade
NOTE: 2019 will mark the third year of the revitalized, revamped National Invitational Volleyball Championships, which is a D-I postseason tournament dedicated to expanding the profile of deserving women's volleyball programs. We will check in on various teams through this season, with a particular eye to high-achieving mid-major programs.
by Kyle Koso
Some collegiate volleyball programs are able to bring in recruits who already have polished skills, those unique players hailing from clubs that did stellar work in molding one’s potential and then rounding athletes into top-line form.
And then there are players who need a bit more time in the kiln.
Those athletes, the ones that you have to project a bit and wait for the game’s subtler skills to truly register, can make a massive difference, and that’s been a huge piece of the regular success enjoyed by the New Mexico State women’s squad. The 2019 season is another example, as the Aggies are 6-0 out of the gate with two fresh faces filling roles in important spots – sophomore setter Krysten Garrison and sophomore outside Cat Kelly. Coupled with key returners Megan Hart and Savannah Davison, New Mexico State is flexing muscle early and looking for an intriguing follow-up to last year’s 24-8 finish that included a WAC Tournament title and a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s a little tricky sometimes. We don’t get a lot of blue-chip recruits; we get athletes who we have to teach how to play ... we graduate great players, and we have to fill those shoes,” said Aggies head coach Mike Jordan, whose team will look to extend its best start since 2006 at this weekend’s Springhill Suites Invite in hometown Las Cruces, NM. “Garrison is setting, replacing Bri Ainsworth in the 6-2, and Krysten was not a setter in club. She didn’t play much last year as a freshman and had to come a long way in a short period of time as a setter. It’s a work in progress here and there, but by the end of the season we usually have developed pretty good players.”
The record bears out Jordan’s claim – the Aggies are a tough out, having reached the NCAA Tournament four times since 2012 and regularly winning comfortably more than 20 matches a year. In the days when Hawaii was a conference foe, the two programs battled it out constantly, and the Aggies in Jordan’s 22 years are a popular non-conference choice, as their RPI provides opponents with a quality strength-of-schedule task.
Jordan wanted this year’s preseason schedule to be a real test; the Aggies probably didn’t get Auburn’s best shot back in August with a couple transfers out of the lineup, but even so, the elements he looks for seem to be coming together.
“How can you complain about 6-0? In the preseason we always schedule some pretty good teams; we want the challenge to learn about ourselves. I don’t think we’ve been as tested as much as I would like, and we are still learning,” he said. “I’ve been concerned if we are tough enough, will we say the right things and do the right things when we need to … we are growing in first-contact skill; the serve and pass game is improving, and that was my biggest concern. We’ve started some games slowly and got better as the match went on, and I’ve been happy to see that we can settle in. It’s the best blocking team maybe I’ve ever had, certainly in a long time.”
That’s got a lot to do with Hart, a fifth-year senior from British Columbia. The 6-foot-5 Hart is hitting an eye-popping .495 and doing her standard damage on the block as the Aggies have swept five matches and outlasted UTEP in a grinding five-setter so far.
Reaching the high ground of the NCAA Tournament last year left quite an impression on Hart, and she’s quite keen on reliving the experience.
“It was really exciting for me. We played as a team, and that’s a key in being able to go that far in a season,” said Hart, who was the MVP of last year’s WAC Tournament. “It meant a lot since it was the first time (playing for a WAC tournament title) and to play in the NCAA Tournament as well. We have that fire lit in us at the beginning of the season, ready to compete hard, and I think when you get that far, the fire just burns hotter. Once you get there, it’s so fulfilling.
“As players get older and mature, they know how to fill those roles. And the seniors do a good job of preparing others ... I come to it more as having a vision for the team and how we can work together. We do a great job of communication and that helps get people motivated.”
“Megan has lot of experience. She plays middle and right, at 6-5 with some arm speed, she can score on the right or the middle, and we bounce her back and forth a lot. She’s someone our younger players can look up to and learn from,” Jordan added. “I just want them to go out and be competitive in long stretches. Even if we get down, historically we can come back and win … I’m not sure how this team is quite yet, but I like the mental makeup so far.”
Davison, another Canadian import, has kept up her pace after a standout freshman season that featured 32 starts and 382 kills. Junior Julianna Salanoa won WAC defensive player of the week honors earlier this year and, like Hart, is a handful on both offense and defense.
“The fact we can push through long rallies, long sets and long games characterizes us. We can keep working hard; it’s all about pushing through in long stretches,” Hart said. “We do have such a strong front row; we’re not limited to one spot, we don’t have to set in one position. We can move the ball around and are versatile enough to hit in different positions; that keeps other teams on their toes, and that helps a lot – we are more of a threat because we can change up what we’re doing if necessary.
“We have to remind ourselves of the end goal and cannot get complacent. We have to remember to push hard, and there’s no time for relaxing. I’m so focused for this season. I have this excitement in my play and in my head; it may be bittersweet in the end, but I’m totally invested in the here and now.”
One other intriguing layer to the New Mexico State story is tied to the size of the roster – at 24 players, it’s the largest in Jordan’s run at the school. The idea is to be welcoming, to look at multiple athletes and relish the contributions each one can make. Strength in numbers makes life more fun, and it increases the odds of Jordan again finding those hidden gems in the great expanse of southeast New Mexico.
“That’s the biggest roster we’ve had. A couple of things are in play … I want people on the roster who want to be on the roster. So, we often have players who want to come to New Mexico State and be a part of this, certainly a lot of local kids, who we want to give a shot to,” Jordan said. “I don’t want to say no to anyone. As long as they are good people and work hard, and help the team in practice every day in some shape or from. I love that we have this large, happy dysfunctional family, and we get a lot out of them.
“Looking back to (AVCA honorable mention All-Americans) Gwen Murphy (2011-15) and Kim Oguh (2004-07) – great players who were terrible volleyball players when they got here, but they were good or sometimes great athletes. They developed into great players, and that’s the route we have to go.”