Sand volleyball will hold its opening practice on Feb. 9, and head coach Jeff Nelson said his team has shown a lot of enthusiasm at open gym sessions in preparation for the inaugural season.
Even with an upbeat group of players, UNM has not yet confirmed where it will host the home games, although Nelson said he foresees his team hosting games at the Stoneface courts located on Paseo Del Norte and I-25.
“We’ve done stuff there before and would be very happy to do stuff there again,” Nelson said. “For the spring we’ll have two or three home matches that we will have to play off campus somewhere.”
Although the Lobos aren’t 100 percent sure where the home matches will be played, Nelson said New Mexico hopes to host its home games somewhere in the University area next season.
“We’re also fundraising to break ground to build our facility on campus,” Nelson said. “Right now there’s a couple options on the location and Paul (Krebs, UNM’s Vice President for Athletics) is making a decision on that.”
Although the sport is only played in the spring, Nelson said it is realistic that the courts could be up by the end of the summer.
Nelson said sand volleyball has now emerged as a full-fledged sport in the NCAA and will be hosting a national championship in 2016. He said he anticipates the sport to field 90 teams next year.
“The Mountain West wants us to have at least six schools (competing in the sport) to consider a championship,” Nelson said. “We have San Jose, Boise (State) and us right now, but Wyoming is looking at it, Colorado State is looking at it and UNLV is looking at it.”
Nelson said Air Force’s head coach is also intrigued by the sand game as well, granting a possibility for a conference championship as early as next year.
UNM won’t have the funds to fly to its competition until the program’s third year, Nelson said, and it is important to get teams such as UTEP and New Mexico State up and running so the Lobos could have more matches within driving distance.
For the immediate future, players are anxious to find out what teammates they will be matched with, as there are only two players to a side.
“I just hope I have someone who can pick up my weaknesses,” junior indoor setter Hannah Johnson said of her potential partner. “We’re competing for a spot on the ladder. It’s going to be really fun.”
Nelson said players will be placed together not only because of size, but also because of how players work together. He said communication is a pivotal component of the game, which will play a major factor when determining partners.
“There’s going to be a lot of competition, especially in the first three weeks,” Nelson said. “I have a sense of who will be in our top couple of groups. I don’t know how they will pair up, but I know the kids who have the strongest skills.”
Although this will be the first year for UNM’s official sand volleyball team, Johnson said a lot of the players are familiar with the rules and style of the game.
It took Johnson a little bit of time to get adjusted to the style and pace of sand. For her, sand volleyball has been more of an acquired take as she said the sport was not enjoyable the first few times.
“It will be really competitive, but it will also be really good for the indoor players,” Johnson said. “It will help the indoor players with agility because sand volleyball has a lot resistance.”
For senior Ashley Newman, the new sand program has given her a chance to enter the competitive collegiate realm of volleyball again after tearing her ACL on the hardwood in the 2012 season. Newman said she is excited to be working under Nelson again and looks forward to the new challenges she will experience on her healthy knee.
“The first time I’ve experienced this court was this year and it’s a lot different,” Newman said. “It’s so much harder to run in sand, and I don’t think people understand that ... You’ve got to be in a different kind of shape.”
Nelson said he hasn’t made goals for the first season of the brand new program, but said the Lobos want to win and aren’t competing just for experience. Nelson said the coaching staff and players are all learning together in the new program.
“We’ve got almost four weeks of training before our first match,” Nelson said. “It will only take them a few days to get their sand legs.”