It didn't feel much like beach weather Monday with a chilly February breeze swirling through Albuquerque's north valley.
Even so, shorts, T-shirts and bare feet were requisite attire as the New Mexico beach volleyball team practiced on the sand courts adjacent to Lucky 66 Bowl. The Lobos open their third season of competition next week in Arizona and the 2017 forecast calls for mostly sunshine.
UNM returns its top three pairs from last season, when it finished 17-9 and was nationally ranked for much of the year. That success should serve as a good starting point, Lobo coach Jeff Nelson said at his team's media day Monday.
"We have more depth, we're more physical and we've experienced some success," Nelson said. "We're far ahead of where we were at this time last year, so we should have high expectations. It's a solid group."
With a handful of new arrivals on the squad, Nelson said he may end up switching some pair alignments as the season warms up. But when UNM travels to Phoenix for five matches next week, its top three pairs will have a full season of chemistry on which to draw.
Senior Cassie House and junior Ashley Kelsey will play the No. 1 position. House and Kelsey posted an 11-10 record playing at No. 1 last season, despite facing some of the nation's most talented, experienced pairs.
"We're two peas in a pod," House said. "Playing with AK for a whole season really helped with chemistry. We're ahead of where we were at the end of last season, and I think the whole group feels that way."
Seniors Lise Rugland and Devanne Sours, who went 14-6 at the No. 2 pairs position, also are confident they can improve. Sours, who never played in the sand prior to her sophomore year at UNM, said she's now comfortable with the tactics and strategy necessary in two-person volleyball.
"There is a learning curve," she said, "but we've worked our way through that. Expectations definitely are higher now and I think it can be a really good season."
UNM's most successful pair from 2016 will have to elevate its play if the Lobos are to make a run at postseason berth. Senior Marisa Doran and junior Eastyn Baleto went 22-3 at the No. 4 position last year but will move up to No. 3 this season.
The Lobos' other two scoring pairs will be new. Senior Julia Warren, who paired with since-graduated Hannah Johnson last season, will team up with freshman Lauren Twitty at No. 4. Junior Jackie Baro will team up with sophomore transfer Carly Beddingfield at No. 5.
"All five pairs have at least one tall player and a legitimate block," Nelson said. "We're getting full-blown swings at all five spots. We definitely didn't have that last year."
Much like last season, UNM will face a challenging schedule with the vast majority of its matches on the road. Just three of their 27 matches are scheduled at the Lucky 66 courts, which will serve as home for a second straight season.
Nelson and his players are not complaining, however. They'll fly to three road tournaments and drive to three after boarding an airplane just once in 2016.
"I love our schedule," Nelson said. "We play at least one nationally ranked team pretty much every weekend and usually more than one. We'll be in some battles."
The NCAA sanctioned an eight-team championship tournament for the first time last season and will keep the same format in 2017.
It's a tough assignment, but the Lobos are ready to take their shot.
"We're shooting for postseason," House said, "no question. In fact, I think we'll all be disappointed if we don't get it."
This article is written by Ken Sickenger from Albuquerque Journal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.