Courtesy of NMSU
LAS CRUCES, N.M. – The New Mexico State volleyball team was practicing throughout the spring working on fundamentals, getting stronger and learning more about the system that head coach Mike Jordan likes to run.
The Aggies finished the 2014 season with a 17-11 record finishing 10-4 in Western Athletic Conference play earning a second place finish in the standings. NM State entered the WAC Tournament as the No. 2 seed, but lost in the semifinals to third-seeded Bakersfield, which eventually won the tournament. It was then that Coach Jordan and his team knew they had to work hard during the offseason and learn from the experience.
“I’m really happy with the progress we’ve made this spring,” said Jordan. “We were very young to start the season this past fall. We dealt with a lot of injuries and at times we were playing five freshmen in a rotation of nine players.”
Coach Jordan will bring back a number of experienced players such as, senior outside hitter Bradley Nash, senior outside hitter Gwen Murphy, senior outside hitter/setter Nathalie Castellanos and senior setter Taylor Livoti. In addition to the seniors, sophomore outside hitter Jordan Abalos and sophomore middle hitter Sasha Lee Thomas, who were both WAC all-freshman team members, return for the 2015 season.
“I think that experience helped reinforce in our young players how important it was to improve not only their skills but their decision making ability on the floor as well this spring,” Jordan said. “I feel like this is one of the more motivated teams we’ve had in the spring in quite a while.”
The volleyball team had individual workouts, group workouts, team practices and scrimmages throughout the spring semester. The Aggies faced UTEP, Texas Tech, Arizona and Western New Mexico University during scrimmages this spring.
“We definitely feel as a group that charting the practice stats more often, adding up the short game and scrimmage wins helped our focus and taught us how to compete consistently,” Jodan said. “We think the players knowing that everything is being charted and posted and that lineup decisions are based on the numbers was a real motivational tool. I loved the way we competed this spring.”
The Aggies finished the 2014 season 12th in the nation and first in the WAC in opponents hitting percentage, holding opponents to a .148 hitting percentage. The Aggies also finished 39th nationally in blocks per set posting 2.55 per set. Coach Jordan pushed his team throughout the spring and challenged his team physically and mentally hoping for maximum growth.
“We’ve made some changes in our system and to our lineup in order to make sure we can get our best attackers the ball more often. Gwen Murphy has moved from the middle to the outside and she has just been absolutely dominant at times this spring,” said Jordan. “Every spring competition she played in I felt like she was the most physical attacker on the floor. We’ve been able to make Nathalie Castellanos and Bradley Nash more versatile attackers as well. The competition at the outside hitter spots has been fun to watch.”
Murphy led the team in 2014 with a team-best .304 hitting percentage and was strong defensively with a team-leading 114 total blocks. Nash also had good numbers during the 2014 fall season finishing with a double-200. She led the Aggies with 233 kills (2.35 K/set) while adding 200 digs and a team-best 22 service aces. Both seniors, according to Jordan, had a great spring and will have a big impact on the how the direction of the team goes.
“Aside from Gwen [Murphy], Jordan Abalos and Andy Tauai improved a lot,” Jordan said. “Both are making better choices as attackers and give us great pass and defend skills along with it. Andy spent the last half of spring with a broken thumb unfortunately but she still made a lot of progress in a short period of time.”
Abalos averaged 2.34 kills per set in 2014 with a .156 hitting percentage. Coach Jordan mentioned that Abalos’ hitting percentage will improve in 2015 as she gained lots of experience and had a good-learning experience this spring.
The middle hitter spot might be the thinnest when it comes to depth but with a healthy Sasha Lee Thomas and Audra Jones the Aggies could be very strong at that position.
“At the middle hitter spot, with Gwen moving to the left we’re going to be a little thin until Sasha Thomas gets cleared from the ACL tear she suffered at the halfway point last fall,” Jordan said. “Audra Jones had a nice spring and at 6’5 can do some good things. She’s coming back strong from the ACL tear she suffered last spring playing basketball.”
On defense, sophomore liberos Kaylee Panepinto and Ariadnne Sierra saw time on the court in 2014. Panepinto played in eight sets as a freshman and Sierra played in 66 sets while posting 125 digs as a freshman.
“Kaylee and Ari both improved a lot at the libero spots,” said Jordan. “Their numbers are a lot better than they were in the fall and it was a lot of fun to watch them play in the back row together this spring. We’ve never had two as quick as they are play at the same time and I’m sure that’s something we will utilize this coming fall.”
Sierra added five service aces and six assists while averaging 1.89 digs per set last fall, while Panepinto worked hard all fall and spring to find her way into the lineup.
“They’re so quick and have great instincts, when they are on the floor together it’s tough for teams to score and it’s a lot of fun to watch,” said Jordan. “They feed off each other and worked very well together. Andy Tauai and Abalos could also see time in the back court as well if they aren’t starters on the left side.”
Senior Taylor Livoti, who averaged 6.19 assists per set in 2014, will share time with sophomore Ashlyn Brown at the setter position. Brown played in 82 sets last year and averaged 4.33 assists per set.
“We’ve improved a lot at the setter position,” Jordan said. “Taylor [Livoti] had her best spring and committed herself to competing every day. She improved defensively quite a bit and worked to improve her decision making as well. In the process she’s improved her voice on the floor and shown more leadership.”
Livoti will be looked at as a leader on the team and Brown will look to her as a mentor. Brown is the younger sister of former Aggie setter Ciara Brown.
“Ashlyn [Brown] made great strides locating and is making much better choices as well,” said Jordan. “Her confidence level is much improved and by the end of spring we saw a more competitive personality coming out of her. We feel a lot better about our level of play at the setting position and we add Briana Ainsworth this fall which will certainly help.”
Along with Ainsworth joining the team in the fall, another incoming freshman that will have an opportunity to compete for time will be outside hitter Tatyana Battle. According to Coach Jordan, Battle is a solid six-rotation player and a very good athlete. Incoming freshman Bryn Popovich, a 6-2 outside hitter will be competing for time on the court as she bring a great arm on both the left and right sides. Megan Hart will add some height to the team at 6-4 and should see playing time in the middle. Defensive specialist Megan McGuire joins the libero competition this fall.
“The good news is that, unlike last year, where we had five seniors who graduated and had to count on incoming freshmen to play a significant amount, we’re not counting on any of the incoming freshmen to play a big role this year,” Jordan said. “We only graduated two seniors this past fall and we return pretty much all of our core group. It’s possible that any of the rookies could come in and play a lot but we’ll be just fine if they’re not ready. That’s a nice feeling to have and when we’ve had that feeling we’ve always had a great year.”
NM State played seven freshman in 2014 and lost only two seniors (libero Hannah Walker and outside hitter Shelbi Goode), which bodes well for the 2015 team.
Coach Jordan is finalizing the 2015 schedule and will release it this week.