NM State coach Mike Jordan joked that there have been times this season when he and his team have felt like orphans.
That’s because while home for the Aggies volleyball team is in Las Cruces, New Mexico, they can’t play there.
For that matter, they played their spring home openers — two four-set WAC victories over Dixie State — at a club in Tucson, Arizona.
Monday and Tuesday they play at Texas-Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) in Edinburg, Texas.
But the following week, February 15-16, they’re “home” again, this time in El Paso, Texas, about 45 miles south of the New Mexico State campus.
It’s been quite an unusual few months, to say the least. Same for the other NCAA Division I school in the state they call the “Land of Enchantment,” the University of New Mexico, which plays in the Mountain West.
“Our governor (Michelle Lujan Grisham) has been, I think, the strictest in the country with regards to coronavirus. We started practice in the fall. We were still allowed to practice with all the protocols, of course. We were testing three times a week,” Jordan said.
But after a month or so, realizing the fall season wasn’t going to happen, Jordan cut back to smaller groups and eventually, when limits got stricter in early November, shut it down. During the fall semester, most of the players were taking classes online, but some were on campus. So at Thanksgiving, Jordan told his players they could go home and not come back until January.
Along the way, the WAC announced there would be a spring season. Already the NM State men’s and women’s basketball teams were playing off campus.
In mid-January, Jordan, in his 23rd year at NM State, and the team got permission from the school to leave for Tucson, a four-hour drive and a double bonus for assistant coach Keith Rubio, whose brother Dave is the head coach at Arizona.
The Aggies, staying in a hotel with a great rate, did two-a-day practices at a “phenomenal” volleyball facility called the Sporting Chance Center for three days, played an exhibition at Arizona, and then made the four-hour drive back to Las Cruces.
“I’m a dad, a husband, and didn’t want to be stuck over there permanently, which was a real possibility,” Jordan said.
But those season openers with the WAC’s Dixie State, January 25-26, were right around the corner.
So NM State headed back to Tucson a few days early, got in some more practice, and then played those matches at Sporting Chance, winning both. It happened, too, without one of NM State’s leading returning players, middle Juliana Salanoa. Salanoa, NM State’s leading blocker and fourth in kills in 2019, was committed to nursing school after the fall, so that was the end of her career.
“Which stinks,” Jordan said, “but there was no way around it.”
In the first NM State match, Victoria Barrett — one of the team’s nine freshmen — had quite a debut. The 5-foot-9 high-jumping outside hitter from Stafford, Virginia, had 18 kills, an ace, four blocks, and eight digs. The next day, four NM State players had 10 or more kills as junior right side Shaney Lipscomb led the Aggies with 12 kills. Barrett had 11 kills, hit .304, and added two aces, a block, and nine digs, making her clearly someone to watch for in the WAC.
After that, NM State returned to Las Cruces. While they were gone, the governor said teams could practice again in New Mexico but not play home matches, even without fans.
“So I called my friend at UTEP, Ben Wallace,” Jordan said. Wallace, the third-year UTEP coach, is a former assistant to Jordan. “Ben and I worked it out so we could play our home games at UTEP in El Paso.”
Unless things loosen up again and the Aggies can play at home.
“At least we’re not going to Tucson, spending days over there and having to quarantine when we get back,” Jordan said. “At least we’re here to practice and sleep in our own beds.”
In 2019, NM State went 27-4, which including going 16-0 in the WAC. The Aggies then won the WAC tournament before losing to BYU.
But nothing could prepare Jordan and his team for this.
“This is what I told our team. I said, ‘Look, it’s a mess, it’s crazy, we’re rushing to get all this stuff done, and we’re going to be a mess at times when we play because of our lack of practice, especially compared to our opponents (I think almost all of them got to practice all fall). But we need to be grateful that we’re playing and that our administration is going to the lengths they are.’ ”
For the record, Jordan said just one of his players got COVID and that was last fall, and “we haven’t had a positive test since then.
“And that’s them doing the right thing. They’re not going out, they’re hanging out, wearing their masks, doing all the things they’re supposed to do. We’re getting tested three times a week. They’ve been great.”
New Mexico has, of course, faced a similar situation. Until recently, the Lobos practiced on campus in Albuquerque, but only in groups of five.
“I was told on January 8th or 9th that we could have our whole team back (to campus) but had to do a mandatory two-week quarantine,” second-year New Mexico coach Jon Newman-Gonchar said. “So we didn’t even get to practice as a team until the 21st of January, so we had less than eight training sessions as a team before we went on the road.”
The Lobos opened their season this past weekend with two four-set victories at Nevada and then next weekend are at Wyoming for two matches.
They’re scheduled to play at home the first time when San Diego State visits February 19-20, but as a New Mexico spokesperson said, everything is subject to change.
“It looks like the alternative is eight straight weeks on the road,” Newman-Gonchar said. “That’s kind of how I prepped the team.”
He admitted it’s a long shot that the COVID situation in the Albuquerque area will improve enough for the Lobos to play at home. The New Mexico football team played home games in Las Vegas, and the men’s basketball team, for example, has played home games in Lubbock, Texas, and St. George, Utah.
Which is why Newman-Gonchar told his players, “We may have to do this as road warriors. Our preaching to them is we’ve got to do everything we can to take care of our bodies and everything we can to be on top of academics because I don’t know in eight weeks if we’re going to be home more than three days a week.”