For most teams a 20-9 record and a second place finish in conference is considered a good season but when you're New Mexico State and you're accustomed to making the NCAA Tournament, a season without a trip to the NCAAs is disappointing.
The Aggies lose a trio of valuable seniors in outside hitter Krista Altermatt, middle blocker Erin Birmingham and right-side hitter Kelli Goodan. Altermatt finished third on the team in kills last season with 242 while Birmingham finished second on the team in total blocks and was a Second Team All-WAC selection. The good news for the Aggies is that they return all four of their First Team All-WAC selections from last season in middle blocker Kelsey Brennan, setter Jennah DeVries, outside hitter Kayleigh Giddens and right-side attacker Whitney Woods. The quartet was tabbed as Preseason All-WAC selections and is the core set of returnees from last year's team. "That's a pretty good core returning group," said head coach Mike Jordan. "Those four have played a lot in their careers, obviously in crunch time we're going to look for them to make plays for us."
The Aggies have a large influx of younger players and with some youth playing behind the starters, Coach Jordan feels that his four All-Conference players will provide solid leadership for the younger players. "They're all really good people and are going to be very helpful with younger players on the team," said Coach Jordan. "I think this will be a much stronger leadership group than we had a year ago."
The Aggies also have a change in their coaching staff as former Aggie player turned assistant Stevi Adams has left the program. In her place will be Tricia Wright who has served the past two seasons as the Director of Volleyball Operations and was an assistant under Coach Jordan earlier in his coaching career at New Mexico State. "I've known Tricia forever, she was an assistant with me in the past and will do a really good job."
Last season the Aggies started with the intention of playing in the 6-2 (two setter) system, however, an injury to freshman Lilly Wolfe (who has since transferred to Tulane) derailed that plan and the Aggies were forced to play in the more traditional 5-1 (single setter) offense for most of the season. The Aggies will stick with the 5-1 this season, however, Coach Jordan is not opposed to going to the 6-2 occasionally.
In a 5-1 system, the team needs an outstanding, versatile setter and the Aggies have just that in junior Jennah DeVries. DeVries is one of the four returning All-Conference players from last season and will once again be the main cog in the Aggies' offensive wheel. "If you look at everybody on the roster, you can make a good case for her as our most valuable player," says Jordan of his setter. DeVries finished last season with 612 assists and averaged 10.74 assists per set. Her 612 assists led the WAC. "I think Jennah's really become a fantastic setter," said Coach Jordan. "She just does a lot of things that are tough to do on the floor. She's deceptive, she's quick, she's able to get to a lot of balls that most setters can't and her location is very very good most of the time." He added, "We think she's one of the premiere players at her position."
Entering the Aggie program this season as a setter is Madison Hardy, a junior transfer from Hawai'i Pacific. "Madi is very quick. She's someone who could certainly set in a 6-2 and she's got a real passion for the game," said Coach Jordan. "Her mom's a coach, Madi loves to compete and we'll see it. I think she could find herself playing a role for us this year."
Returning to the Aggie roster at setter is Brynja Rodgers. Brynja spent a season at Florida before transferring back to New Mexico State and must sit out this season. While she won't see the court this season, her familiarity with the Aggies' system is a plus for the team in practice. "She has a real good idea of what we're doing out there and has been pretty vocal so far," said Coach Jordan. "She's improved. I think her time at Florida she got an opportunity to play almost all the time which was good for her obviously. When she does get back on the court next year I think we'll benefit from that."
The Aggies return First Team All-Conference outside hitter Kayleigh Giddens. She finished the 2009 season averaging 4.00 kills per set which was second in the league. As a senior, Giddens is primed for a breakout year. "Kayleigh is in much better shape than a year ago," says Coach Jordan. "I think she has a much better idea how to defend and she has improved her overall game tremendously." Giddens missed some time on the court early last season with an injury however, she returns this season in full health. "She's healthy and we expect her to put up huge numbers offensively," said Coach Jordan. "I'm really impressed with how far she's come with her overall game."
In the number two spot on the left side, the Aggies are looking to fill the shoes of Krista Altermatt. Not only did Altermatt have the third highest kills on the squad, but she was also the team's best player in serve receive and a very good passer. "When Krista graduated the first thing we started thinking about what who was going to replace her serve-receive. Not so much offensively but we needed someone to come and pass," said Coach Jordan.
Looking to fill the spot departed by Altermatt is sophomore Stephanie Ziegler. Ziegler saw some action as a freshman when she filled in for Altermatt after she suffered a severe ankle sprain midway through the conference season in a match against Fresno State. "Stephanie has improved quite a bit from last year and is probably in line to start in the spot vacated by Krista," said Coach Jordan. "If she can put up consistent numbers, not great numbers but consistent numbers, we think she could be the number two left for us."
"Stephanie is a great jumper, she's very quick and her serve receive has improved quite a bit." He added, "She still has some work to do defensively and needs to be a better attacker out of system at least when she's in the front row. In the back row, she's a great back row attacker and hits a pretty good jump serve."
Also in the mix to replace Altermatt is freshman Rocio Gutierrez. Gutierrez is a local product coming out of Franklin High School in El Paso and when talking about Gutierrez, Coach Jordan likened her to another Franklin High School graduate, Jordan Bostic. "Rocio was the best player in the area by far and really has a ton of athletic ability. She could play the number two left spot and she could also compete for the libero spot."
The coaching staff hopes that Gutierrez is the next in a long line of local players who have left high marks on the Aggie program. "She's been on our radar for three years," said Coach Jordan. "She can do multiple things and is pretty good at a lot of things." He added, "I think she's got a chance to play right away and if she doesn't play right away I think down the road she's certainly going to be a fixture in our lineup."
Another player who could see a bit of time in the number two outside hitter position is sophomore Ellen Miks. Miks played in 12 matches last season, mostly toward the end of the season. "You could give Ellen a lot of votes from our coaching staff about being the most improved player on the team," said Coach Jordan. "As much as anything she's got a lot more confidence now than she did as a freshman. She's one of our better serve-receivers and has improved defensively. She's a lot like Rocio in a sense that she can play libero or she can play number two left. She's got some versatility and I think she'll play more than she did last year."
Joining the competition on the left side is freshman Deidre Pajares. Parajes is coming off an injury and might not see much playing time right away. "Deirdre is coming off ACL surgery. She feels good but she's still got a ways to go," said Coach Jordan. "The elevation's not there yet, she's not moving around like she was before the surgery but she's getting closer every day." Pajares was named to the AVCA High School watch list during her senior season and once healthy, the coaching staff expects her to have a big impact. "She's got a really good arm, she hits the ball hard and she can play the left or the right," said Coach Jordan. "She was more of a right-side player in club and high school. We're going to try to make her more of left. She's got some physical ability for sure, she just has to get back from the knee surgery."
The Aggies third First Team All-Conference returnee is middle blocker Kelsey Brennan. Brennan finished third in the conference in hitting percentage last season at .319. "She'll be that number one middle for us this fall. Offensively she's doing very well," said Coach Jordan. "She's improved a lot hitting off two feet. Her strength is hitting off of one foot behind the setter but she's improved off two feet and her block is improving. It still has a ways to go but she's becoming a better blocker." Last season Brennan averaged 1.16 blocks per set which was second highest on the team.
The Aggies will need to replace the spot vacated by Second Team All-WAC selection Erin Birmingham. Birmingham led the Aggies in blocking last season averaging 1.42 blocks per set which was third best in the league.
Among the newcomers competing for the number two middle spot is Michelle Kuester a transfer from Texas Tech. "Michelle has a lot of athletic ability," said Coach Jordan. "She had a lot of shoulder problems last year at Texas Tech and really couldn't play because of it. She had the shoulder operated on in December and has done very well with her rehab. She feels like it's as strong as it was before she got hurt. She is excited about getting going. She's a very competitive kid. She'll definitely compete for that number two middle spot."
Also on the roster at the middle position is freshman Desiree Scott. Coach Jordan feels like Scott will be a special player at New Mexico State. "Desiree is so gifted athletically. She is a kid that as a young player was recruited by a lot of the top name programs in the country," said Coach Jordan. "She had a really bad knee problem that had to be surgically repaired and her rehab took a long time and a lot of schools bowed out and didn't want to take the chance. We've seen great progress from her this spring. She started playing on her club team after a year and a half out and gets better every day." He added, "She's got such long arms and she's tall and jumps so well. Somewhere down the road I think she's going to be doing the same things that Kim Oguh and Amber Simpson did. We think that highly of her."
Also in consideration in the middle is freshman Amanda Tonga who Coach Jordan says can play any of the three front row positions. " Amanda is every bit of 6'1" and hits the ball pretty hard. She's got pretty good skills," said Coach Jordan. "She can pass the ball a little bit and plays pretty good 'D'. She sets it great and could play any of the three front row positions with time." The coaching staff plans to experiment with different positions for Tonga. "I don't know where we'll wind up playing her long term. We're going to experiment with her to see where she fits right away but we love her versatility and that arm."
RIGHT SIDE ATTACKER
The final member of the four returning First Team All-Conference players is Whitney Woods. Last year was just her second full season after redshirting her freshman season and then missing most of her redshirt freshman season with a shoulder injury. Woods showed several flashes of dominance last season. Against Notre Dame she posted a .647 hitting percentage with 12 kills on 17 swings with just one attack error. She marked a career-high 22 kills on 33 swings and committed just three attack errors against Louisiana Tech in Ruston. She also put together back-to-back 19 kill matches against Idaho and Nevada late in the season. She has also improved her blocking ability during the past two seasons. "She's so fast and jumps so well," says Coach Jordan. "She consistently beats people off the floor and has developed into one of the best blockers I've ever been around."
With Woods entering her final season of eligibility, the Aggies will be looking to groom a potential replacement. One of those players could be Liana Burns. "Liana has pretty good skills. She's a good passer and she can hit on the left or the right," said Coach Jordan. "She's not a big physical kid but she's got a really good idea how to play the game. I think she could be someone down the road, if you're looking for that six-rotation player, that could fit that role."
The Aggies must find a replacement for last year's libero, Kelsi Phillips who finished sixth in the league in digs per set at 3.67 and collected 209 digs. The Aggies have plenty of options and one of the frontrunners for the libero spot is incoming freshman Shelby Tamura. "Shelby could be our starter at libero. She's very quick. We've made a couple little changes with her and she's very coachable and her serve receive seems to be making progress already." Tamura was also high school and club teammates with fellow freshman Deidre Pajares. Coach Jordan believes it's the first time in his tenure that he's added a pair of high school teammates in the same season. "We've seen a lot of good things from Shelby already. I think as she gets a little bit more confidence, and it's hard for freshmen to be real vocal right away but I think she's going to be a very good player."
Another potential candidate at the libero spot is Natasha Giacomazzi. "Natasha has been very impressive so far. She can set or she can be a DS," said Coach Jordan. "She will compete for time as a libero and I think she's someone that could set some in a 6-2 if we needed to go to a 6-2." He added, "Her dad is a longtime volleyball coach, she grew up in the gym so she's really got a pretty good idea of what she's doing and I think she'll earn some playing time for us."
Also in the running for the libero spot is transfer Chelsea Rose who transferred to the Aggies before the spring semester. "Chelsea is a great team leader. She is positive, energetic and always there for her teammates. She's a great team person," said Coach Jordan. "I knew that when I talked to her junior college coach Carl Ferrera who is a good friend of mine. Those are the things that he really felt she could bring to the team and she's done that." Rose also played as a setter, though she'll spend more time playing at the defensive specialist position for the Aggies. "I don't know if she could set at our level but she could certainly play DS and set in transition once in a while. She hits a tough serve and I think this is a team that's going to need some of that."
Rounding out the talent at the DS position is local product Jene' Coppedge. "Jene is a really good athlete, she's learning how to be two things, a libero and a setter, so it's a work in progress but she's come a long ways," said Coach Jordan. "She joined us in the spring and did enough in the spring to impress us to the point where we think eventually she could wind up playing a little bit for us. She's got a nice tough serve and is a great teammate too."
The Aggies have a strong schedule once again as they'll play nine matches against teams that are either ranked or receiving votes in the AVCA's Preseason Top 25 Coaches Poll. "We've got another very tough preseason schedule and if we're healthy enough we feel like we could do pretty well," said Coach Jordan. "The NCAA selection committee is looking for quality (RPI) wins so it's important that we get some great wins early. We failed to do that last year." The Aggies did earn a victory at Colorado State to end the season but it wasn't quite good enough to put the Aggies into the tournament. "We beat them at their place in four and they wind up going to the Sweet 16 after knocking off Washington. So we got left out because our RPI wasn't very good. The lesson is we've got to get some wins in the non-conference against some quality teams. So we've got a lot of quality teams lined up and hopefully we'll do well. This is a team that can do well and expects to do well."
Among the highlights for the Aggies in the non-conference are matches at No. 15 Florida State, at No. 23 LSU and at No. 18 Arizona whereall three are hosting tournaments where the Aggies will also play teams who are receiving Top 25 votes. At Florida State the Aggies will face Sun Belt champion Florida International. At LSU the Aggies will face Rice, a team receiving votes and at No. 18 Arizona the Aggies will face Pepperdine who is also receiving votes. The Aggies will also play their annual rivalry match against a much improved New Mexico team that is coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance and is also receiving votes in the preseason poll. The Aggies will also get a return home match from No. 18 Arizona.
In conference play the WAC looks to be an improved league over a season ago. "There were a lot of teams last year, San Jose, Fresno, Utah State, Nevada, that had a younger core and return most of their starters," said Coach Jordan. "We expect them to be better and obviously Hawai'i is always going to put a great team out on the floor." Hawai'i enters the season ranked No. 5 in the country and is coming off a Final Four appearance. "The last couple years during the season, Hawai'i was a little underrated by people across the country and really showed how good they are. Two years ago they go to the Elite Eight and last year they go to the Final Four."
The Aggies will appear on television eight times during the regular season including a nationally televised home match on ESPNU against Hawai'i.
With a core of four First Team All-Conference players returning, expectations are high as usual for the Aggies. After the disappointment of being left out of the tournament last season, the Aggies will be looking to make a statement in the non-conference and then aim to push Hawai'i for the WAC title.
The Aggies are looking to improve defensively behind their block and finding a starter at libero will be one of the keys to improving that defense. Offensively the Aggies should be as potent as ever. Health issues plagued the team a year ago but heading into the season the Aggies' front three of Kayleigh Giddens, Kelsey Brennan and Whitney Woods are ready to cause opposing teams' blockers nightmares and with returnees Stephanie Ziegler and Ellen Miks and newcomers Rocio Gutierrez, Michelle Kuester, Desiree Scott and Amanda Tonga, the Aggies will have plenty of firepower behind those starters. It should be another exciting season for Aggie volleyball as they look to knock off perennial league favorite Hawai'i and return to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence.