By Kyle Koso
Popping up on the NCAA volleyball radar these days is the squad from New Mexico, signaling its interest in being a factor in the Mountain West Conference and drawing closer to securing a regular postseason tournament identity.
Some of that has to do with the Lobos, 14-3 overall and 5-1 in the MWC heading into this week’s road matches at Colorado State and Wyoming, getting command of the little things. We’ll discuss that shortly, but first, it might be how the big things were first tackled by head coach Jon Newman-Gonchar that explains the team’s tenacity.
The hamster wheel began spinning on Dec. 28, 2018, when he got married to his wife, Morgan, in Arkansas, where he was associate head coach for the Razorbacks. Next came a trip to Maui for the honeymoon on Dec. 30, followed by a phone interview for the UNM job on Jan. 6, 2019.
UNM job offered and accepted – Jan. 18.
Move to Albuquerque – Feb. 1.
Family welcomes birth of son, Hudson – May.
“It was a whirlwind. We still had a beach volleyball program to run, 20 athletes there and 12 who were crossovers with the indoor team,” Newman-Gonchar said. “Those 12 were on the road six of the eight weeks of our spring (training season). You’re fighting every element in your way, just trying to get some systems in place. I didn’t even know what we had in the gym, let alone what we might need down the road as far as recruiting. It was definitely drinking water from a firehose.”
New Mexico went 11-19 in 2019, but Newman-Gonchar gained real clarity in how to deploy the younger players on the roster and how to recruit to the vulnerabilities that existed in terms of overall skill set. But of greater concern was the day-in, day-out mental approach as the program had hit a wall, going just three matches above .500 overall the previous four seasons.
“It came down to, what is the culture in our gym during practice? There were times we just got outhit, outserved, and we didn’t see that level of play in our gym,” he said. “Almost every nook and cranny of the game, we needed to evaluate. What are the top teams in our league doing, what’s their efficiency, how do we become that? It was that hard look in the mirror as we asked, where is our practice culture not meeting the demand, the reality, of the matches? It wasn’t all about recruiting.”
Those details didn’t get solved overnight, and there may still be hurdles to come, but the 2021 season is surely packed with positive trends. New Mexico was picked to finish 10th in the MWC, but the Lobos started with eight straight non-conference victories, dropping just one set, and have hung tough under pressure lately, coming back from one set down for MWC wins against Utah State and Boise State.
Points come from multiple spots, with 5-foot-9 junior Kaitlynn Biassou leading with 221 kills (3.75 per set) and sophomores Uxue Guereca (178 kills) and Kali Wolf (126) also heavily involved. The Lobos have a significant edge over opponents in hitting percentage (.253-.135) and are thriving under the steady hand of sophomore setter Melissa Walden, a Texas A&M transfer with 509 assists (8.63 per set).
Like every program shuttered and scrambled by COVID-19, there was no way to predict how the Lobos would emerge from their challenges. With no more than five players and one coach allowed in the gym at any one time starting in August 2020, and several international players left with only Zoom calls to stay connected when things were totally cancelled, progress was impossible to gauge, but Newman-Gonchar believes all that work on team culture truly paid off during the duress.
“We got shut down in October (2020), and it had to be one of the most deflating experiences you could go through. After training our best, trying to replicate the game with five players and a coach, that’s not very effective,” he said. “Then in the spring (of 2021), we had three midseason enrollees who were not allowed by the NCAA to play, so just 11 players total, and two got hurt immediately. By the end of the sixth week, I’m on my sixth lineup and have seven players healthy.
“That paints the picture of what the team has gone through, and how they stayed connected. This team finally got a taste (this fall) of everything they’ve wanted, to train and be great teammates and take this conference by storm.”
One other COVID-related variable for the Lobos tied into their early 2021 schedule, which 1) led to a lot of success, and 2) prompted the question of if New Mexico was tested enough ahead of the MWC slate. All those three-set victories may have looked different in another world, but Newman-Gonchar had ultimately planned for the home-and home matchup with Northern Arizona to be a stern challenge, and the Lobos earned a split, surging the mood and leading to a solid conference start.
Which takes us to Thursday’s match at Colorado State and the Saturday trek to Wyoming – one of the notoriously difficult road swings in the MWC. New Mexico will have an interesting subplot to navigate, sorting out how hyped up to get and how much this trip should be used as a measuring stick for the program’s overall standing.
“So I ask, are we giving great effort in practice, does it match where we want to be on game day, are we working our tails off so we can take anything you throw at us, Colorado State or Wyoming, then we have a fighting chance,” Newman-Gonchar added. “It’s always big picture, but in the micro, we need to get better every step. In the moment, we are hungry as all get out about winning matches, and in the macro, are we learning and growing against every opponent?”
NIVC NOTE: Tournament officials for the 2021 NIVC have announced key details for this year’s event, all beginning with Selection Night on Nov. 28. Follow all the news and stay in step with Year 4 of the event at www.womensnivc.com and @WomensNIVC.