Opening day for the New Mexico's beach volleyball program arrives March 8 with plenty of excitement but few expectations.
Truth be told, coach Jeff Nelson and his players don't know what to expect.
The Lobos do know they'll travel to Phoenix for a pair of matches against LSU and TCU. New Mexico's players have been training in sand at Stone Face Courts for weeks and are confident they're fit and ready to play.
But the bottom line is, college beach volleyball is a new experience for Nelson's bunch. How they'll fare is anybody's guess.
"We've got a lot to learn," Nelson said. "That's really what this first year is about, this weekend even more so. I like our team but I really have no idea how we'll stack up."
The lack of expectations does not equate to a lack of high hopes. UNM's first beach volleyball team is short on experience but not talent.Eight of the 14 players on UNM's roster competed for the indoor team last fall, including regular starters Julia Warren, Hannah Johnson and Devanne Sours. Even those players have discovered the transition from hardwood to soft sand can be challenging.
"Just moving in the sand is really hard," Warren said. "You have to work a lot on communication with your partner, which is different, but a lot of it's just getting your sand legs under you."
Collegiate beach volleyball has shown remarkable growth in recent years and has 50 sponsoring schools this season. The NCAA has promoted it to a championship sport, and Nelson believes UNM will benefit from getting in early. Two other Mountain West schools, Boise State and San Jose State, have started beach programs.
The addition of UNM's 22nd intercollegiate sport and its first new one since 1993 has attracted plenty of interest from players. Freshman Eastyn Baleto was recruited primarily as a sand player, and five of the other six new players in the program played prep volleyball in Albuquerque.
That includes team captain Ashley Newman, who played three seasons with UNM's indoor team but stepped away after suffering a season-ending knee injury in 2012. With a year of eligibility remaining, Newman decided to give the sand game a try.
"I hadn't played sand at all," Newman said, "but I thought it would be a cool opportunity to try something new and play for UNM again. I contacted (Nelson) when I heard about it and I'm really excited about getting a chance to play."
Beach volleyball competition is similar to tennis in that five matches with two-player teams are played. Matches follow a best-of-three set format and the school that wins three matches or more takes the victory.
The Lobos have spent the past few weeks adjusting to the nuances of sand play, but Nelson and his staff have spent more time trying to determine partners.
"The players need to complement each other," he said. "Chemistry and balance are important. You don't want two players with the same strengths and weaknesses, but communication is big too. You can't have two quiet players together or it's a mess."
Nelson admits there will likely be partner shuffling as the season goes on, but he feels comfortable with UNM's top four sand teams. In addition to the five scored matches, exhibition matches will likely be played this weekend to get more players needed experience.
"At this point we just need to get out and play," Nelson said.
Sunday's matches should provide a good gauge of where the Lobos are and what areas need work. They'll open against an LSU program that went 6-10 in its first season last spring. TCU, like New Mexico, is tipping off its first sand season.
The Lobos will board a bus for Phoenix this morning and could have a respectable fan turnout. Nelson said roughly 50 family members, former players and indoor volleyball fans are making the trip.
UNM's first home matches are scheduled for March 21 at Stone Face Courts. The Lobos will play a doubleheader against Grand Canyon.
Money is being raised to construct a home facility for UNM beach volleyball, Nelson said, but a site has not yet been finalized.
This article was written by Ken Sickenger from Albuquerque Journal and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.