Which is the way it should be.
The 2014 University of New Lobos did not win the Mountain West title and they did not march into postseason play. Those are foundation goals for Jeff Nelson volleyball and, as Nelson put it, there “are a lot of reasons,” why UNM failed to reach its potential this past season.
However, it was not for lack of effort or even lack of talent. In part, it was because Colorado State was probably better than what was expected and probably because the Mountain West was better at the top than what was expected.
Another factor was the Lobos’ youth. Despite having the incomparable Chantale Riddle smashing volleyballs at a record-setting pace – Nelson’s Lobos might have been a bit too young to make a charge at the 2014 title gobbled up by CSU’s gaudy 17-1 MW mark.
“Colorado State was a great team and then the league turned out to be pretty deep,” said Nelson.
The Lobos, the preseason No. 2 pick behind CSU, finished 19-12 on the season. UNM was fourth in the MW race at 11-7 which was six games behind Colorado State (29-2, 17-1 MW) and three games behind UNLV’s 14-4 MW mark.
“Chantale was fantastic for us, but we were still a very young team and, at times, that youth was as strong a presence as Chantale,” said Nelson. “It was a good season, but obviously it didn’t end where we expected it to end or where we wanted it to end.”
The end result Nelson seeks every year is a spot in the NCAA bracket. His young Lobos (one senior) were making a charge at that bracket toward the season’s end. The Lobos had won seven of eight games heading into the final three matches of 2014.
Coming off an impressive 3-1 win at Wyoming, the Lobos traveled south to Fort Collins to battle the league-leading Colorado State Rams. UNM lost 3-1 to CSU and six days later lost 3-2 at Fresno State. That ended any shot the Lobos had at an at-large NCAA bid.
“I thought we had a shot at postseason, if we had won that game (vs. CSU),” said Nelson. “It at least would have given us a shot at the bubble. For whatever reason, it didn’t happen.”
The Lobos ended the season winning eight of their final 11 games. The final 3-0 roll of Air Force on Nov. 25 in Johnson Center was a special game filled with an electric charge of excitement as Chantale Riddle went for the Mountain West career kills record – and got it.
“The anticipation and anxiety in the crowd was very relevant,” said Nelson. “The rest of the team really played well for her. Chantale had a great career here and it’s a fantastic honor for her to get that record.”
Riddle again threw out a banner year for her Lobos. She was named to All-Mountain West First Team, All-Pacific South Region honorable mention, and AVCA Honorable Mention All-America. She became the first Lobo volleyball player to be named three times to an all-region team and three times in the All-American category.
Riddle also graduated from UNM in December. “I’ve told her from the beginning that the most important day for her at UNM would be the day she graduates,” said Nelson.
Riddle set the Mountain West record for career kills and also set UNM’s record for career kills and points. She had 441 kills in 2014 and tied teammate Hannah Johnson for the MW lead in double-doubles with nine.
The Lobos had four players named to the 2014 All-Mountain West Team. Riddle was named to the First Team along with sophomore Julia Warren (libero). Warren, a force at the net, was moved into the libero position near the halfway mark of the season. “That’s one of the things you have to appreciate about our players,” said Nelson. “They will do whatever you ask of them for the good of the team.”
The Lobos also placed two players on the honorable mention list: Cassie House and Hannah Johnson. House picked up a total of 276 kills on the season with 2.65 per set while Johnson averaged 10.24 assists per set which was third in the conference. Johnson had 1,157 assists on the season and is sixth on the UNM’s all-time assist list.
Riddle and Elsa Krieg played their final matches for UNM on Nov. 25 vs. Air Force. Riddle had used up her eligibility. Krieg could have returned for another season, but ACL injuries convinced her to end her UNM career this past season.
Riddle became UNM’s all-time career leader in kills in the game at Colorado State. She leaves the UNM program with records in attempts, points and kills.
The Lobos began the 2014 season receiving votes in the AVCA preseason poll, but a 2-4 start dropped them off that list. UNM then won its MCM Elegante Lobo Invitational which started a streak where the Lobos won nine of ten matches. The Lobos then lost four straight conference games before getting hot and winning seven of eight games heading at Colorado State.
Nelson loses only one significant starter – Riddle – heading into the 2015 season. Still, the Mountain West needs to rise up to Colorado State’s level – or have the Rams come down a bit. That could happen in 2015. CSU loses three starters.
“The conference overall will be more balanced than ever,” said Nelson. “I’m hoping the experience we gained this year will help some of our younger players take on greater leadership roles next year.
“We have a lot to build on and although Chantale will be greatly missed, our balance should be the best it has ever been.”
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