Thursday, December 6, 2012

Up and Running

Improved Aggie women's basketball team off to strong start

By: Anthony Esparza
After winning six games a year ago, the revamped New Mexico State women’s basketball team is 5-3 heading into the finals week break.
Among the Aggies’ five victories is a come-from-behind 69-68 victory over previously unbeaten UTEP at the Pan American Center. Considering NMSU played 22 games before earning its fifth win last season, the quick turnaround may come as a surprise to some.  
However, the culture of the program started to change with the hiring of Mark Trakh combined with the leadership qualities displayed by the more seasoned players on the team during his first year at the helm.   
“Tabytha Wampler, Kaitlyn Soto, Kelsie Rozendaal and Erica Sanchez changed the culture. They changed it right off the bat,” Trakh said. “They were working hard, they were receptive and they were coachable. We would have liked to have won them a few more games.”
Wampler, Soto and Sanchez were seniors last season and are no longer on the team, but Rosendall returned for a redshirt senior campaign. The 5-11 forward from Weatherford, Texas is averaging 10.3 points this year and is shooting 90 percent from the free-throw line.
In addition to the production of the experienced Rosendall, a handful of newcomers have already established themselves as key components of the team.
Stefanie Gilbreath was recruited by Trakh back in 2007 during his tenure at Southern California. However, her career as a Lady Trojan was plagued by a reoccurring ACL injury, which forced her to miss three consecutive seasons at USC.
Now reunited with the coach who first recruited her out of high school five years ago, the 6-1 redshirt senior from Katy, Texas is having a breakout season for the Aggies thus far. In addition to averaging 13.8 points per game, Gilbreath has taken on a leadership role on the squad.
“In the first couple of games I had to get used to having to be like a vocal, on-the-court leader,” Gilbreath said. “It was something I was used to, but I hadn’t had to do it in so long. I just had to make sure I was critiquing what they (the team) were doing, what they needed to do and still stay positive and help them get through everything.”
Fellow newcomer Danesia Williamson is also off to a standout start for NMSU. Williamson— a sophomore guard who transferred from the University of San Diego—leads the team in scoring, averaging 14 points per game.  Williamson has also proven she can score clutch baskets in late-game situations.
Against Loyola Marymount, Williamson scored with under 30 seconds remaining to tie the game and send it into overtime. She also made a pair of key free-throws in the Aggies’ win over UTEP.  Most recently, Williamson made a layup with two seconds left in the game to give NMSU a two-point win at Southern Utah.
Gilbreath and Williamson are part of a talented NMSU backcourt, which has proven to be the strength of the team to this point. The team’s noticeable weakness is in the post, where the Aggies do not have a true center or much size in general.
Nonetheless, the Aggies are noticeably improved and battle-tested this season. Four of their five wins have been decided by three points or fewer.
“We had a lot of those games last year that we didn’t win, that were close,” Trakh said. “Based on last year, we’re still owed like four or five more close games…But it’s good and the kids are used to playing in those close games and they really believe they can win.”
 One game that was not close was the first matchup against New Mexico at The Pit in Albuquerque. The Aggies fell to the Lobos by a final score of 60-37. However, the Aggies will have another opportunity to take down their instate rivals Dec.18 when the Lobos visit Las Cruces.
NMSU has two games remaining before starting Western Athletic Conference play Dec. 29 against Texas-Arlington at the Pan Am Center.

Monday, December 3, 2012

truTalk 12/3/12

On this jam-packed episode of truTalk, we discuss conference realignment madness, Aggie volleyball's NCAA Tournament match against BYU, the latest in men's and women's hoops and we wrap up with this week's Topic of the Week: 5 non-BCS bowl games to watch. Listen/download and enjoy! For comments or podcast topic suggestions, please tweet us @trusportsnmsu or at @zackp012.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Bhullar’s career night helps Aggies hand Southern Miss its first loss

Story and Photo By Zack Ponce

The New Mexico State Aggies men’s basketball team is built to overpower opposing teams with their frontcourt, and their forwards powered NMSU (4-4) to a 68-60 victory over Southern Miss (6-1) Saturday night – handing the Golden Eagles their first loss of the season in the process.

Freshman center Sim Bhullar anchored the Aggies down low and had the breakout game Aggie fans were salivating for when he first stepped foot on the Las Cruces campus.  Bhullar scored a career-high 17 points, grabbed seven rebounds, and had two blocks on the eve of his 20th birthday in front of his younger brother and mother watching from the bleachers.

“I thought I played good,” Bhullar said.  “I just tried scoring the basketball and I tried playing like the big (domino) I should be everyday.”  

Bhullar already looks more comfortable on the court, now with nine games of experience in his young career.  He has dedicated himself to improving his fitness since the summer and has now lost 70 pounds of weight since July.

“Half the stuff I am doing right now I couldn’t do 70 pounds heavier.  I am just working hard every day trying to reach the goal.”

The Aggies pounded the ball into the post with center Tshilidzi Nephawe and forward Tyrone Watson in addition to Bhullar in the first half and took a 39-28 lead into halftime.

The Southern Miss defense came out strong in the second half and momentarily shut down the NMSU offense.  The Golden Eagles began pressuring NMSU higher up on the court, trapping point guards K.C. Ross-Miller and Teller de Rouen, and made it difficult for the Aggies to complete the entrance pass into the paint.

The strategy worked for Southern Miss and helped cut the Aggie lead to eight points late in the second half.

“They just got a bunch of feisty guys,” Watson said of Southern Miss.  “We nailed it on in the first half, but the second half I think we got a little bit relaxed and that’s when they crept in.  They got me a couple of times.”

Southern Miss forced NMSU into committing a total of 20 turnovers, but the Aggies only surrendered the ball once within the last four minutes of play.

“20 is not acceptable at all but they pressed us the whole game so you have to give some leniency towards the turnovers.” Watson said.  “We see the same defense the whole entire game but it gets harder each time.  Overall I thought we did better than we usually do with the turnovers.”

Watson played all 40 minutes of the game and finished with seven points and three rebounds.  Shooting guard Daniel Mullings finished the game with his first double-double of the season, scoring 21 points and nabbing 11 rebounds.

“It was the best win of the season by far.  I think (Southern Miss) is an NCAA team and they have that potential to dance this year,” NMSU head basketball coach Marvin Menzies said.  “They’ve got a lot of experience.  Luckily we got them at home and luckily we brought our “B+”, “A-“ game.”

Forward Renaldo Dixon didn’t play and guard Eric Weary only appeared on the court for a total of one minute.

Menzies said he adjusts their rotation based on “game-to-game scenarios” to better match up against each opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.  He added that both Dixon and Weary are still a part of that rotation.

“I’m trying to ride the seniors as long as they are playing well and I’ll try to ride them as long as I can,” Menzies said.  “We’ve got some depth which gives us some choices.  We’ve got great chemistry in the locker room, no one is complaining about not playing enough time.”

The Aggies will next travel to play on the road at South Alabama (4-3) on Tuesday, Dec. 4.  The Jaguars upset Florida State 76-71 in their season-opener in Tallahassee, Fla. and will pose another challenge for NMSU in their non-conference portion of the schedule.

NMSU hosts unbeaten Southern Miss Saturday

By: Anthony Esparza

After a disappointing one-point loss at rival UTEP, the New Mexico State men’s basketball team seeks redemption when it hosts undefeated Southern Mississippi at the Pan American Center Saturday.
In addition to bouncing back to Wednesday’s loss, the Aggies will also look to avenge two losses to Southern Miss from last season.

“That’s a team that beat us twice last year on a neutral court and on their home court, so we’re hoping having them at home gives us a little bit of an edge,” NMSU head coach Marvin Menzies said. “They’ve got some very talented players that are returning from last year’s team that were very successful against us last year.”
Southern Miss lost four starters from last year’s squad, including a trio of guards that had successful outings in both games against the Aggies: LaShay Page, Angelo Johnson and Maurice Bolden.

However, thus far in the season the Golden Eagles have been led by senior forwards Dwayne Davis and Jonathan Mills.

After missing last year because of academics, Davis has had a strong start to the season. Davis leads the team in scoring, averaging 16.2 points per game, while continues to be the team’s best rebounder, grabbing 7.5 boards per game.

Southern Miss is certainly battle-tested heading into the matchup with NMSU. Three of the Golden Eagles’ six games have been decided by fewer than five points, including back-to-back overtime contests to start the season.

Nevertheless, the team is off to a 6-0 start as it heads begins a three-game road trip that includes games against NMSU, No.9 Arizona and Louisiana Tech.

NMSU, meanwhile, is 3-3 as they return to Las Cruces before heading back on the road for contests against South Alabama and No.25 New Mexico.

The Aggies have been sound for the most part defensively and have out-rebounded their opponent in all but one game this season. However, the Aggies are still in the process of figuring out their offensive identity.  

Menzies said the team needs to adjust to the tempo of the offense and start taking more high-percentage shots.  

“Right now that’s something that the younger guys on the team are struggling with in their decision making in terms of understanding our system,” Menzies said. “The system is built around scoring points but we’ve got to do it with an understanding of how that’s accomplished; through rebounding and through getting to the foul line. It’s not just all making shots; you can score points in different ways.”

The Aggies also average 17 turnovers per game, which proved to be costly in the UTEP game.

NMSU still has five non-conference games before WAC play begins. Saturday’s contest against Southern Miss serves as an ample opportunity for the Aggies to get their first signature win of the season.  

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Football adds San Diego State to schedule

By Zack Ponce

The San Diego State University athletics department posted a release on Thursday to their website that the Aztecs will play a home-and-home series with New Mexico State.

San Diego State will travel to Las Cruces to face the Aggies on Sept. 28, 2013.  New Mexico State will then return the favor and face the Aztecs in San Diego on Sept. 24, 2016.  SDSU leads the all-time series against NMSU 8-1-1.

The announcement by the San Diego State athletics department now means NMSU has finalized contracts to play eight football games for the upcoming 2013 season.

New Mexico State now has road games scheduled at Texas (Aug. 31), UCLA (Sept. 21), New Mexico (Oct. 5), and Idaho (Nov. 2). 

The Aggies have finalized home games against Minnesota (Sept. 7), San Diego State (Sept. 28), Rice (Nov. 19), and Idaho (Nov. 30).

New Mexico State still needs to schedule one more game to reach the minimum of nine scheduled football games that is required to remain eligible to compete at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level.  Ideally the Aggies would like to reach a total of 12 games, which would require two more home and road match-ups.

New Mexico State will travel to San Marcos, Texas this Saturday, Dec. 1 to play the Texas State Bobcats, marking the final game the Aggies will play as a member of the Western Athletic Conference.

The WAC will stop sponsoring football at the end of the season, and is desperately trying to keep the conference solvent in the non-football sports.  Currently the 2013-14 WAC membership will consist of New Mexico State, Seattle, Cal State Bakersfield, Utah Valley, and Grand Canyon.  The Aggies will be the only 2012 football-playing member left standing in the WAC next year if they don’t also bolt for another conference.

On Monday, Nov. 26, Denver announced that it would leave the WAC to join the Summit League for the 2013-14 season.  The WAC also accepted Grand Canyon into the league on the same day.

Grand Canyon is currently a Division II university located in Phoenix, Ariz.  The Lopes are a for-profit university – similar to Devry University and the University of Phoenix – and will be the first for-profit university to ever compete at the Division I level of collegiate athletics.  

Aggies finish roller coaster season against BYU in NCAA Tourney

By Zack Ponce   (Photo courtesy Mark Sabhoni)

“Rewarding…frustrating…” were the two words New Mexico State volleyball head coach Mike Jordan used to sum up the Aggie’s 2012 campaign.

The NMSU squad, loaded with talented, yet in some instances inexperienced freshman and sophomores, had a roller coaster ride of a volleyball season.

“It’s been kind of an oddball season too in the sense that we started out great, beat some good teams early and were feeling pretty good about ourselves, and then seemed to kind of plateau…we didn’t make a ton of progress for awhile,” Jordan said.

NMSU entered the season picked to finish first in the Western Athletic Conference by the coaches.  The Aggies rushed out to a 10-3 start and seemed to clearly be the conference’s best team.  But by the midway point of the season, NMSU appeared to run out of fuel.

The Aggies struggled to find an identity throughout the 2012 season, and at times appeared leaderless.  Coach Jordan tinkered with the starting lineup seemingly every match, looking for the spark of momentum his team needed.

“Even when we won there were times when we didn’t feel particularly well with the level of play.  I think we were fortunate in some respects to have the depth this year which we have not had much of the last few years,” Jordan said.  “But I’m glad we kept searching and trying different lineups.  You give the players all the credit for their patience level and their willingness to do whatever asked of them.  Whatever we asked (the players) to do they went out and did to the best of their ability, and there’s a lot to be said of that.”

Jordan and his coaching staff played all but two of the ladies on his roster throughout the season.  What some may point to as a weakness, turned out to be the Aggies’ greatest strength – its depth.

Different players stepped up at various times throughout the year to help NMSU through the regular season slog of 30-plus games.

Transfers Ciara Brown (setter), Loren Loerch (outside hitter), and Preslie Alexander (middle blocker) helped the Aggies in the beginning of the season. 

Brown quickly developed a bond with middle blocker Desiree Scott and would set her up for the perfect kill.  Loerch developed into a key offensive contributor whenever outside hitter Meredith Hays needed to rest.  Alexander’s playing time fluctuated throughout the year, but she became one of the team’s best defenders at the net in addition to Scott.

Outside hitters Nathalie Castellanos and Bradley Nash earned more playing time as the season progressed and eventually became key cogs in the NMSU rotation.

Castellanos earned praise from Jordan for always competing hard no matter the match situation.  Nash, who began the year still recovering from a knee injury, finally became physically healthy enough to earn starting time.

NMSU ended the regular season losing for straight matches, three of which came to the top three teams in the WAC.  Jordan said that “forced their hand” and led to “drastic” lineup changes heading into the WAC Tournament.

The Aggies easily advanced through their competition at the WAC Tournament in part because of the aforementioned lineup changes.  Alexander moved over to the middle blocker spot, Hays moved to the left back position, Stephanie Ziegler regained her starting spot at libero, and Nash earned significantly more playing time.

New Mexico State earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Volleyball Tournament with the WAC Tournament victory.  The Aggies will face No. 12 Brigham Young in Provo, Utah in the first round on Friday at 7 p.m.

The Cougars are a dangerous team that ranks first in the nation in hitting percentage, hitting .313 as a team.  6-foot-7-inch junior outside hitter Jennifer Hamson lead the BYU team.  She was named the West Coast Conference’s Player of the Year.  Said Jordan, “she’s a first-team All-American whether they win a game in the NCAA Tournament or not.”

The key for the Aggies is to serving tough and aggressive, limit unforced errors, passing well, and play solid defense. 

“We’re going to come out the same way with the same lineup and I hope we get the same kind of defensive intensity and effort at the service line that we did (in the WAC Tournament),” Jordan said.  “If we do, then we will put ourselves in a spot where maybe we can win.  If we don’t, it could be a bloodbath.”

Regardless of Saturday’s outcome against BYU, the NMSU volleyball team has made significant strides since the season’s start, and been one of the most exciting teams to watch over the course of the fall athletics season.

“I honestly could say this is one of the best seasons I’ve ever had in volleyball because I’ve learned so much,” said Castellanos, who just a year earlier led the Gadsden Panthers volleyball team to a New Mexico State Championship.  “I wouldn’t change it for anything.  I love my coaching staff, my teammates, and just the fact they love to compete is something I really appreciate.”

The experience of playing in an NCAA Tournament is foreign to all except Loerch, who was a freshman on the 2010 Cal-Berkeley squad that lost to Penn State in the NCAA Championship match.  With the bulk of the team returning, the experience will only set up the team for more success next year.

“I’m pretty excited and a little nervous because it’s something bigger, but at the end of the day it’s volleyball.  The only reason there’s tension is because it’s ‘do or die,” Castellanos said.

Added Scott:  “It’s definitely a whole new experience for a lot of us and one you can’t sulk about.  No matter what happens it’s going to be fun.  I think during the WAC Tournament we played with a lot of heart and if we keep playing that way a lot of things are possible, and beating BYU is one of them.”

*Story originally published in The Round Up print edition Nov. 28, 2012